Katakana

Katakana is used to write foreign words and sound words (onomatopeias) and, in general, to point out that something is usual.

The kanas have a set of ‘core’ characters that provides a basic set of sounds. To allow more sounds, the characters are modified as follows:

  • we can mark some characters with double quotes (”) or with a circle (°).
  • we can follow some characters with a small ‘ya’ (ヤ), ‘yu’ (ユ), or ‘yo'(ヨ), e.g., the character ‘ka'(カ) combined with a small version of ‘ya’ sounds ‘kya’ (キャ).

Core characters

a i u e o
k ka ki ku ke ko キャ kya キュ kyu キョ kyo
s sa shi su se so シャ sha シュ shu ショ sho
t ta chi tsu te to チャ cha チュ chu チョ cho
t テュ tu
n na ni nu ne no ニャ nya ニュ nyu ニョ nyo
h ha hi fu he ho ヒャ hya ヒュ hyu ヒョ hyo
m ma mi mu me mo ミャ mya ミュ myu ミョ myo
y ya yu yo
r ra ri ru re ro リャ rya リュ ryu リョ ryo
w wa wo
n
  • Japanese has the sounds シ (shi), チ (chi), and ツ (tsu), instead of ‘si’, ‘ti’ and ‘tu’, which it doesn’t have
  • The character ヲ (wo) is rarely used
  • ‘te + yu’ (テュ) is ‘tu’, which is not a Japanese sound, so it doesn’t have a hiragana counterpart.
  •  
    フ is usually written as the sound ‘fu’, but its actually closer to ‘hu’ or to the English word who (see pronunciation):


    English
    front desk
    knife
    golf


    romaji
    furonto
    naifu
    gorufu


    hiragana
    フロント
    ナイフ
    ゴルフ


    What it sounds
    who-ronto
    nai-who
    goru-who


ten-ten (“) and maru (°)

g ga gi gu ge go ギャ gya ギュ gyu ギョ gyo
z za ji zu ze zo ジャ ja ジュ ju ジョ jo
d da チ” ji ツ” zu de do デュ du
b ba bi bu be bo ビャ bya ビュ byu ビョ byo
p pa pi pu pe po ピャ pya ピュ pyu ピョ pyo
  • We can write ‘ji’ as ジ or チ”, but, in practice, チ” is seldom used
  • We can write ‘zu’ as ズ or ツ” but, in practice, ツ” is seldom used
  • ‘za + ya’ (ジャ) is ‘ja’, not ‘zya’
  • ‘zu + yu’ (ジュ) is ‘ju’, not ‘zyu’
  • ‘zo + yo’ (ジョ) is ‘jo’, not ‘zyo’
  • ‘de + yu’ (デュ) is ‘du’, which is not a Japanese sound, so it doesn’t have a hiragana counterpart.

Small vowels

Up to here, katakana is almost a mirror of hiragana. However, katakana has been further adapted to include many foreign sounds beyond the ‘tu’ and ‘du’ sounds already noted.

Some hiragana and katakana characters can be followed by a ‘tsu’, ‘ya’, yu’ or ‘yo’ to create new sounds. Katakana takes this further to represent sounds that are not present in hiragana, following the characters with small vowels. In this case, the syllable replaces the vowel with the small vowel that follows it. For example, Japanese does not have the sounds ‘fa’, ‘fi’, ‘fe’, or ‘fo’, but it has the sound ‘fu’. Thus, we can follow the ‘fu’ character with a small vowel to replace the ‘u’ with the small vowel:


char + small vowel
fu + a
fu + i
fu
fu + e
fu + o


katakana
ファ
フィ

フェ
フォ


sounds…
fa
fi
fu
fe
fo


For example:


word
office
fair
form


romaji
ofisu
fea
foomu


katakana
オフィス
フェア
フォーム



Likewise:


char + small vowel
te + i
de + i
chi + e


katakana
ティ
ディ
チェ


sounds…
ti
di
che



The V sound

The ‘u’ (ウ) with a ten-ten (ヴ) sounds ‘vu’.

The following image is from the anime ‘Violet Evergarden’, which is also the name of its heroine:

The name ‘Violet Evergarden’ is not Japanese, so it is written in katakana as:

ヴァイオレット・エヴァーガーデン
va-i-o-re-t-to・e-va-a-ga-a-de-n

The dot between ‘violet’ and ‘evergarden’ separates the first and last names; Japanese has no spaces so without the dot, we could not parse the sequence of characters.


char + small vowel
vu + a
vu + i
vu
vu + e
vu + o


katakana
ヴァ
ヴィ

ヴェ
ヴォ


sounds…
va
vi
vu
ve
vo


Words with a ‘v’ often have an alternative spelling with a ‘b’ because to the Japanese ear the ‘v’ sound is indistinguishable from the ‘b’ sound:


word
violin
virus
veil
volt


v sound
ヴァイオリン
ウイルス, ウィルス
ヴェール
ヴォルト


b sound
バイオリン
ビールス, バイラス
ベール
ボルト



practice words

Many of these Japanese words are borrowed from English, but this does not mean that they necessarily sound like their English counterpart, e.g., the word for T-shirt is Tシャツ (tiishatsu), pronounced ‘tee-ee-shah-tsu’, very different from the original ‘tee-shirt’ sound. Some words do sound about the same, though, e.g., ‘piano’, ‘pen’, ‘wain’ (wine), and many others.

ワイン wain wine ミルク miruku milk
メロン meron melon カメラ kamera camera
スキー sukii ski ケーキ keeki cake
セーター seetaa sweater スキート sukitoo skirt
メニュー menyuu menu ジュース juusu juice
シャツ shatsu shirt キャビネ kabine cabinet
バス basu bus ビール biiru beer
ゲーム geemu game ゴルフ gorufu golf
ペン pen pen パン pan bread
ピアノ piano piano プール puuru pool
カップ kappu cup バッグ baggu bag
ベット betto bed ネックレス nekkuresu necklace
チェス chesu chess フォーク fooku fork
チェック chekku check パーチィー paatii party
ヴィタミン vitamin vitamin ヴァイキング vaikingu viking
ビタミン bitamin vitamin バイキング baikingu viking
ヴェスト vesuto vest ヴォールト vooruto vault
ベスト besuto vest ボールト booruto vault