As mentioned in the introduction, the first of the three Japanese scripts is Hiragana, a phonetic script called a syllabary where each character represents a whole syllable. Here is a basic hiragana chart showing the modern 46 characters plus the 2 archaic characters ゐ (wi) and ゑ(we) for a total of 48 characters.
The characters are arranged in a grid known as gojuuon or “fifty sounds”, with 10 columns of consonants and 5 rows of vowels. The sound each character makes can be found by referencing its position in the grid and finding what consonant and vowel combination it corresponds to. For example, the character な is pronounced na because it is in the n- column and -u row. There are, however, a few exceptions. The characters to watch out for are し、ち、つ and ふ which are pronounced as shi, chi, tsu, and fu instead of the expected si, ti, tu and hu. Lastly, there is the final character ん, which is romanized as n and usually sounds similar to the ng sound in the word sang.
For an in-depth guide into achieving perfect pronunciation, check out the series on pronunciation.
For now, each of the 5 vowels is pronounced roughly as follows:
<a> is pronounced like in father
<i> is pronounced like in meet
<u> is pronounced like in rude
<e> is pronounced like in bed
<o> is pronounced like in boat
The consonants come out roughly as they do in English, with the exception of the r- sounds らりるれろ which are halfway between an <r> and an <l> sound. Do not pronounce them with a hard English sounding <r> like in the word red.
Lastly, the character つ, romanized as tsu, is pronounced like the <ts> at the end of the word cats. In English, this sound can only be found at the end of a syllable. But in Japanese, it is found at the beginning of syllables, like in the word Tsunami.
Diacritical Marks – ゛and ゜
Additionally, Hiragana makes use of two diacritical marks. The first diacritical mark is called a dakuten or ten-ten and looks like this ゛, two diagonal strokes placed on the top right corner of a character. Its job is to change an unvoiced sound into its voiced counterpart. <k> changes to <g>, <sa> changes to <za>, <t> changes to <d> and <h> changes to <b>. The second diacritical mark is the handakuten or maru and looks like this ゜, a circle which is also placed on the top right corner of a character. The handakuten is only used with Hiragana in the h- column and turns the consonant <h> into a <p>. You can see all the changes made by the dakuten and handakuten in the chart below.
Be careful of the exceptions じ、ぢ、and づ which are pronounced ji, ji and zu instead of the expected zi, di and du. You might have noticed that means we now have 2 characters pronounced ji and 2 characters pronounced zu. So when do we use each one? I will be covering that in an upcoming post, but for now just remember that じ and ず are the default characters to use and ぢ and づ are exceptions.
The next thing you need to know are the glided sounds, known as Yōon. These are syllables where a <y> is inserted between the initial consonant and the vowel. Examples of this include kya, myo, and ryu. These are all pronounced as one syllable with no vowel between the initial consonant and the <y>. So avoid the temptation to insert an <i> in there and pronounce them incorrectly as <kiya>, <miyo> or <riyu>.
Orthographically, these sounds are represented by taking the -i row character for the consonant that you want and writing a smaller than usual や、ゆ、or よ next to it. Here is a chart of all of the possible combinations. Pay attention to the 12 exceptions that are ちゃ、ちゅ、ちょ、ぢゃ、ぢゅ, ぢょ、しゃ、しゅ、しょ、じゃ、じゅ、and じょ.
Another important phenomenon is chōon, which are long vowels. A long vowel in Japanese is simply a regular vowel pronounced twice as long. In the Roman alphabet, long vowels are typically denoted with a macron (e.g. ō). To represent a long vowel in Hiragana, you simply write the vowel you want twice.
As you can see, the vowels え and お have two ways to write their long forms. えい and おうare more common than ええ and おお but there is no hard and fast rule, you just have to memorize the spelling of each word.
Lastly, there is a phenomenon known as sokuon where a pause is inserted between two adjacent syllables. This is accomplished by writing a smaller than usual つ where you want the pause to be. As a result, sokuon is also sometimes called chiisai tsu or “small tsu”. The pause is often romanized as a doubling of the initial consonant of the second syllable. Let’s look at a few examples:
かこ （kako）becomes かっこ（kakko）
もと（moto) becomes もっと (motto)
たす（tasu) becomes たっす（tassu)