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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Hiroko here. Welcome to Absolute Beginner Questions Answered by Hiroko, where I’ll answer some of *your* most common Japanese questions.
The question for this lesson is… When do I use the different Japanese alphabets?
When you write the Japanese word “kokoro” which means “heart,” can the first “ko” be written in hiragana, the second “ko” in katakana and the last “ro” in either hiragana or katakana or kanji?
The Japanese writing system is a combination of two character types - an ideogram kanji, which was introduced from China, and a phonogram kana, which was derived from kanji. Most Japanese words are generally written in kanji or kanji plus hiranaga to express the meaning. Actually, we have four patterns to write words in the Japanese language.
Firstly, only kanji. Many nouns and words of Chinese origin are often written in kanji only. For example, 本 meaning “book” or 天気 meaning “weather.”
Secondly, kanji and hiragana. The hiragana is called okurigana. And it is the hiragana that follows kanji stems, and is generally used to inflect adjectives and verbs. For example, 大きい meaning “big” or 食べる meaning “to eat.” Here, the ‘ki i’ and the ‘beru’ are written in hiragana.
Thirdly, only hiragana. This is used when a person forgets how to write a word in kanji or when words don’t have kanji. For example, うきうきする which means “be excited” doesn’t have kanji and is written in hiragana only.
Finally, only katakana. Imported words from other languages are primarily written in katakana only. For example, ピアノ meaning “piano” and サッカー meaning “football”.
Then when you write “kokoro”, you can use either hiragana “こころ” or the kanji “心”. However, when Japanese native speakers see the kanji ”心”, they can immediately understand the meaning is “heart” because of the kanji. When they see the hiragana version of “こころ”, they have to find the meaning from the context.
Now let’s talk about sentences a bit.
Almost all Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. For example, 私はコンピューターを使います。
Watashi has a kanji so it should be written in kanji 私.
An example of kanji plus hiragana is 使います. Here, the ‘imasu’ is in hiragana.
Words that are written in hiragana only are は and を. Hiragana is used for grammatical elements, for example the particles が、は、を and so on, and a copula verb, です.
Katakana is used for imported words like コンピューター here as well as foreign people’s names, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis.
I hope this makes sense to you and you’re able to use the alphabets correctly from now on!
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them!