The Katakana alphabet is one of three Japanese writing systems along with hiragana and kanji. At first glance, comparing katakana to hiragana you can see the katakana alphabet has much straighter, simpler lines than hiragana. Of course, neither hiragana nor katakana is actually an alphabet. They are both syllabaries in that each character represents a syllable or whole sound rather than just a letter or a piece of a sound.
Katakana Alphabet Chart
|n||elongate consonant||duplicate and unvoice||duplicate and revoice|
|Compound Hiragana||Compound Dakuten|
If you’re just starting out learning Japanese, we recommend you start by learning hiragana, and learn the katakana alphabet next. You can save the kanji for last. All the pronunciations and stroke orders (stroke order is very important!) can be found in our free Introductory Lessons!
One of the most important things to know about katakana is that every character coincides with a character in hiragana. Their pronunciation will be exactly the same. Why on Earth would a language have two alphabets that make exactly the same sounds? Excellent question. Hiragana is by far the more common writing system in Japanese, but katakana characters serve a few special purposes.
One of these purposes is for transcription of foreign words into a Japanese pronunciation, much like in English how we put foreign words into italics to denote that they are not part of our language. It is also used to represent words “borrowed” from other languages. Take the English word, “computer.” In Japanese, this would be written with katakana as コンピュータ. If we break it down we can see コン (kon) + ピ (pi) + ュー (yu) + タ (ta). Konpyūta! The straight line ー after the ュ indicates that it is a long vowel.
Katakana as Onomatopoeia
Katakana is also sometimes used to express onomatopoeia. Not sure what that even means? Onomatopoeia is when a word is spelled out to recreate a sound. Like ZAP! BANG! BOOM! This is used a lot in Japanese manga. Here are a couple of examples straight from our lessons!
|While ハハハ is like English “hahaha,” there is more than one katakana laugh. The witch’s laugh sounds much like an evil laugh in English too!|
|When an insect is approaching, you can use the katakana カサカサ…kasakasa. This is also the onomatopoeia for the rustling noise that papers make!|
If studying from a table is too hard, we’ve made some free Japanese katakana flashcards for you to download! The flashcards include all the basic katakana characters as well as dakuten katakana and compound syllables. Once you print the cards, cut along the horizontal lines and fold in half so the English is on one side and the katakana is on the other. Then tape or glue the cards to make them nice and sturdy. Once you think you’ve got it down, you should try a matching game with our hiragana flashcards!
|Print out all the flashcards, and lay them out with the English side down. Then see how fast you can match up the hiragana character to the katakana for the same sound! And no cheating!|