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:

  • some characters are marked with double quotes (”) or with a circle (°).
  • characters are followed by small ‘ya’ (ヤ), ‘yu’ (ユ), and ‘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
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

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
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

Up to here, katakana is a mirror of hiragana. However, katakana has been further adapted katakana to allow for the pronunciation of sounds that are not present in Japanese.

Small vowels

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:

f ファ fa フィ fi fu フェ fe フォ fo

For example:


word
office
fair
form


romaji
ofisu
fea
foomu


katakana
オフィス
フェア
フォーム




The V sound

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

The image on the right is from the anime ‘Violet Evergarden’, which is also the name of its heroine; the name 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.

ヴァ va ヴィ vi vu ヴェ ve ヴォ 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

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
ヴォッカ vokka vodka ヴィナス vinasu Venus ヴェスト vesuto vest ヴァイオリン vaiorin violin