Why Does Japanese Have So Many "Alphabets"? - Step Up Japanese
My students ask a lot of good questions. And one that sent us off on a bit of a tangent a few weeks ago was:
“How old is Japanese writing?”
That'd make a good blog post, I thought (after we talked about it a bit).
So, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of Japanese history with a very brief introduction to Japanese writing systems!
Until the 1st or 2nd century, Japan had no writing system. Then, sometime before 500AD, kanji - Chinese characters - made its way to Japan from China (probably via Korea).
These characters were originally used for their meaning
only - they weren't used to write native Japanese words.
↓ And at that time, Japanese writing looked like this. Look, it looks like Chinese!
But it was inconvenient
not being able to write native Japanese words down, and so people began to use kanji to represent the phonetic sounds
of Japanese words, not only the meaning. This is called manyougana
and is the oldest native Japanese writing system.
For example, in manyougana the word asa (morning) was written 安佐 (that's a kanji for the a sound - 安 - and another for the sa sound - 佐). In modern Japanese we'd use 朝, the kanji that means "morning" for asa.
Problem was, manyougana used multiple kanji for each phonetic sound - over 900 characters for the 90 phonetic sounds in Japanese - so it was inefficient and time-consuming.
Gradually, people began to simplify kanji characters into simpler characters - that's where hiragana and katakana came from.
means "broken kana" or "fragmented characters". It was developed by monks in the 9th century who were annotating Chinese texts so that Japanese people could read them. So katakana was really an early form of shorthand.
Each katakana character comes from part of a kanji: for example, the top half of 呂 became katakana ロ (ro), the left side of 加 became katakana カ (ka).
↓ Each katakana comes from part of a kanji.
Women in Japan, on the other hand, wrote in cursive
script, which was gradually simplified into hiragana. That's why hiragana looks all loopy and squiggly. Like katakana, hiragana
characters don't have meaning - they just indicate sound.
↓ How kanji (top) evolved into manyougana (middle in red), and then hiragana (bottom).
Because it was simpler than kanji, hiragana was accessible for women who didn't have the same education level as men. The 11th-century classic The Tale of Genji was written almost entirely in hiragana, because it was written by a female author for a female audience.
What would 12th-century people in Japan think of my students, 800 years later, learning hiragana as they take their first steps into the Japanese language?
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