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A Guide on Katakana Letters

written by: Makoto • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/11/2012

Ever wondered how to write katakana characters? Read this guide to find out.

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    Examples

    Katakana letters are part of the Japanese writing system and usually used to transcribe words of foreign origins (Japanese words that were borrowed from other languages). Although more angular than their hiragana counterpart, some characters can sometimes be tricky to either remember or write.

    Here are some examples of words written in katakana which are words of foreign origins. Keep in mind that although a vast number of words come from English, words were also borrowed from other languages such as French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian or Spanish. In case you're interested in finding out which Japanese words were borrowed from which languages, you can check wa-pedia.com which has a pretty extensive list.

    The purpose of this guide is to help you remember which character means which sound as well as provide a step-by-step guide to help you, the learner, write them.

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    Hiragana and Katakana

    Hiragana and katakana can easily be differentiated because the way they are formed is very different. While hiragana is written with curved strokes, the katakana is a lot more angular and usually less complex than hiragana.

    The best way to demonstrate this is to give a few examples of both scripts:

    Katakana: ア、イ、ウ、エ、オ、マ、ム。

    Hiragana: あ、い、う、え、お、ま、む。

    This should give you a general idea of their very obvious differences.

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    ア、イ、ウ、エ、オ

    Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s have a look at the following chart to see how each one of the first 5 katakana is written.Katakana chart 

    (a): is fairly easy to distinguish as there aren’t really any other katakana which looks like this one.

    (i): is a bit more tricky as it can easily be confused with エ。That is because エ looks like a capital “i” from our Roman alphabet. This is why it is very important not to make association to the Roman alphabet when identifying a katakana (unless it can help memorization purposes).

    (u): is very similar to another character: (wa) ワ. The only difference is that little vertical bar on (u) ウ which is missing on (wa) ワ. I had trouble differentiating both characters for a while until I figured out a little trick which I hope will prove useful for you too.

    Interestingly enough, the hiragana version of ウ is う while the hiragana version of わis very different from its katakana counterpart ワ. But what really helped me to distinguish both characters is the presence of that slightly horizontal bar on top of the う which is somewhat transcribed in the katakana version: ウ as the small, horizontal stroke. In other words, both the hiragana (う)and katakana(ウ) version of “u” have a small stroke on top of them which is missing on the katakana (ワ) and hiragana (わ) version of “wa”.

    (e): as already mentioned before, エ can easily be confused as an “i” sound since it is very similar to a capital “i”. The best advice I would give a beginner would be to remember not to be tricked with the similarities and remember that エ stands for “e”, not “i".

    (o): is also thankfully unique as far as its shape is concerned. It can hardly be confused with other katakana characters. It is also fairly easy to remember as all you need to do is to draw a cross with a third branch at the bottom left.

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    What's Next?

    In the next article, we’ll continue our study of the katakana characters by studying 5 new katakana “letters”. Those “letters” are カ、キ、ク、ケ, コ。We’ll also be studying how by knowing these 5 new characters, we can instantly learn 5 more by adding just a little easy symbol to each one of them!

References