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Lesson Transcript

Peter: Hi everyone, welcome back. In this lesson, Naomi-sensei and I are going to explain a little bit more about one of the most unique aspects of Japanese - the writing system!
Naomi: That’s right! There are a lot of things that we’re going to cover in the lesson.
Peter: Definitely. The Japanese writing system has actually been called the world’s most complex. But that’s where we come in! We’re here to make the trip through it easy and fun. Let’s start with the basics. Japanese has two native alphabets. The technical term for this is syllabic scripts.
Naomi: Syllabic scripts… hmmm…
Peter: We’ll refer to them as alphabets.
Naomi: Okay.
Peter: So the two native Japanese alphabets are:
Naomi: Hiragana and katakana. They each have their own purpose and usage. These scripts, or alphabets, are referred to collectively as kana.
Peter: First, before we go on, let’s explain what syllabic means. Japanese doesn’t use letters – it uses syllables. These syllables are usually made up of one consonant and one vowel, but some of them contain only one vowel. Now, Japanese has a lot fewer sounds than English. There are only five vowels, and only fourteen basic consonants. So these syllables are all different combinations of these five vowels and fourteen basic consonants.
Naomi: All together there are 46 syllables!
Peter: If you can make all 46 of these sounds, you can speak Japanese.
Naomi: Yeah, you can say that! So hiragana and katakana both have 46 syllables each.
Peter: Hiragana is used for grammatical elements, words that don’t have Chinese characters, or kanji, or for words where the kanji is too difficult to read. Now, we’re going to use kanji and Chinese characters interchangeably. The reason is, the Japanese word for Chinese characters is:
Naomi: kanji
Peter: So we may use Chinese characters, we may use kanji – same meaning.
Naomi: Right, kanji that are hard to read even for native speakers will sometimes have hiragana written over them!
Peter: So you’ll see the kanji with small kana corresponding to the reading of that kanji above it.
Naomi: It’s called furigana.
Peter: It’s really useful for when you’re first learning kanji, or when you come across kanji with difficult readings. But more about that later.
Naomi: The next syllabic script is katakana. Katakana look a little different from hiragana!
Peter: Katakana are boxier,
Naomi: Mm, boxier, right.
Peter: Katakana has sharp changes and sharp angles.
Naomi: Whereas hiragana is more curvy, and flowy.
Peter: If you take a look at the lesson notes for this lesson, it’ll become very clear what we’re talking about. So what are katakana used for?
Naomi: Katakana are mainly used for writing out foreign words.
Peter: To give you an example, take the words fork, spoon, and knife. These items originally weren’t used in Japan, so there was no Japanese name for them. The foreign names were borrowed from English and became part of the Japanese language. Words like these are always written in katakana.
Naomi: I think the easiest example is your name. “Peter” is written in Katakana, too, since your name “Peter” didn’t originate in Japan.
Peter: So, while it’s not always the case, a very good rule of thumb: if you see a katakana word, it’s usually a loanword, meaning that it was borrowed from a foreign language.
Naomi: Sometimes, though, katakana is also used for emphasis.
Peter: I think in the same way that italics are used for emphasis in English. Okay, now let’s move on to the big gun…!
Naomi: Kanji – Chinese characters.
Peter: Kanji~ the fun part!
Naomi: As we mentioned, kanji refers to Chinese characters. These characters were borrowed from the Chinese language and adapted into Japanese.
Peter: As a result, Japanese now has thousands of Chinese characters.
Naomi: Yeah, some say 50,000, and others say more than 50,000!
Peter: But the good news is that a lot of these aren’t used anymore. They’re old variations that have fallen out of use.
Naomi: These days it’s said that you need to know around 2,000 characters to be literate in Japanese. The Japanese government actually made a list of these kanji.
Peter: The list is called Jōyō Kanji. Jōyō means “everyday use”.
Naomi: Yeah, “regularly used.”
Peter: This is the list of kanji that’s taught in schools throughout Japan. These are the must-know kanji!
Naomi: Yeah, but even if you don’t know every single character on this list, I think you can still read a good deal of Japanese!
Peter: Definitely! You can still easily make your way around even just knowing some. Every little bit helps. In fact, while the government says 2,000, I think with about a thousand, you can really function quite well in Japan. So let’s talk more about these kanji. Most kanji have two different readings.
Naomi: One is kunyomi, the Japanese reading. The other is onyomi, the Chinese reading.
Peter: Naomi-sensei, how do we know when to use which one?
Naomi: It mostly depends on whether the kanji is by itself or is part of a compound. That’s usually how you can tell. Of course there are many exceptions.
Peter: Lots of exceptions, but a good rule of thumb is: If a kanji is by itself, the kunyomi is used. When kanji is part of a compound, meaning more than one kanji character, it’s usually the on reading.
Naomi: Right.
Peter: But of course, this is a rule of thumb and not always the case. Let’s talk a little about the history of kanji, shall we?
Naomi: Sure!
Peter: Now, kanji were originally pictures of people, animals, or other things. If you like at examples of early kanji, they look just like the item they represent. Then, as the years went by, they became more and more stylized. Now, these days, a lot of them don’t really resemble their meaning, but there are some that still do. For example, Naomi-sensei, the kanji for kuchi, or mouth – it’s basically…
Naomi: a box shape.
Peter: Right, it looks like an open mouth.
Naomi: Yeah, a pictograph, right? The kanji for yama, meaning mountain, is just like the shape of a mountain!
Peter: It looks like the skeleton of a mountain. Not that they have bones, but imagine if a mountain had bones and you took an x-ray. You would see one big support of the mountain, and then on the left side and right side you see two more supports.
Naomi: Okay, I see your point.
Peter: If you check the lessons notes, I think that image will become very very clear. So from there, the next step was to start combining these pictures to create more kanji. A lot of the more complex kanji are actually just two or more kanji put together.
Naomi: Right, nearly all kanji can be broken down.
Peter: And broken down into components. Now, if that peaks your interest, you’re going to really like kanji. Beyond the scope of this lesson - this is just an introduction lesson, but – if these stories are interesting, you’re going to do very very well with kanji. Now, we touched on furigana a bit earlier, but let’s go back to that for a moment. Furigana is hiragana placed over the kanji that tells you how it’s read. It will save your life when you start learning Japanese.
Naomi: I totally agree! As long as you know hiragana, you can read any kanji if it has furigana over it. That way you can learn a lot of new kanji.
Peter: And the best part is, this is actually the way Japanese learn kanji.
Naomi: Oh yeah yeah, small kids. Reading manga!
Peter: A lot of manga in their original Japanese format have furigana over the characters.
Naomi: Right.
Peter: So, when you’re using furigana, you’re learning just like a Japanese person. So don’t let kanji intimidate you! You have furigana to help you, so it’s nothing to be scared of! Once you get the hang of kanji, it gets easier and easier to learn new characters. So, Naomi-sensei, question for you.
Naomi: Hai?
Peter: What if you don’t know any of the Japanese writing systems yet? Then what?
Naomi: Um, that’s where romaji comes in.
Peter: Romaji – literally, Roman characters.
Naomi: Right.
Peter: Romaji is Japanese that is written using Roman letters. The same alphabet that’s used in English. This is what students with no prior knowledge of Japanese rely on when they first start studying, before they can read kana.
Naomi: We Japanese people have to learn romaji too, in school.
Peter: It’s pretty important for several reasons, especially the way techonology’s evolving. For example, to type in Japanese on a keyboard, you need to know romaji.
Naomi: I remember learning romaji when I was a fourth grader.
Peter: So, are you ready to quiz you have just learned? We are going to give you some quizzes about Japanese writing system. Are you ready? In Japanese there are 3 types of characters. What are they?
(Tick tick tick tick )
Peter: Answer?
Naomi: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, Chinese characters.
Peter: Which of the following alphabets is curvy and flowy? A:
Naomi: Katakana.
Peter: B?
Naomi: Hiragana.
Peter: C?
Naomi: Kanji, Chinese characters.
Peter: D?
Naomi: Romaji.
Peter: The answer is…?
Naomi: Of course, hiragana!
Peter: B! Okay, which of the following is the boxier alphabet? A:
Naomi: Hiragana.
Peter: B?
Naomi: Kanji.
Peter: C?
Naomi: Katakana.
Peter: D?
Naomi: Romaji.
Peter: The answer is…?
Naomi: C – katakana!
Peter: Remember, katakana is mainly for foreign words.
Naomi: And Kanji are Chinese characters.
Peter: And here you have it. The Japanese writing system might sound complicated, but it really isn’t that bad. A lot of people really have fun learning it! I know I did, it’s extremely rewarding.
Naomi: Yeah!
Peter: So learn it with us here at JapanesePod101.com.
Naomi: Ja, mata!