Katakana is one of three character sets used in the Japanese language.
Katakana is a phonetic alphabet - each letter represents the sound of a syllable (like English ABC). Letter itself has no meaning.
Katakana and Hiragana represent exactly the same set of sounds.
Katakana is used mostly for foreign loan words.
TIP: Did you know that in Japanese, when it comes to sounds, it is always consonant-vowel. The only time when there is a consonant without a vowel, is the ん (n) kana and it always goes at the end of a word when it does show up. You'll probably see this fact again.
Example: ペン (pe-n) (trans. = pen)
Number of Letters
In modern Japanese, there are 46 basic Katakana letters.
In addition to these 46 basic letters called gojūon, there are modified forms to describe more sounds - 20 dakuon, 5 handakuon, 36 yōon, 1 sokuon and 6 additional letters.
Traditionally, sounds of basic syllables are organized in the form of a table (5 x 10). This table is called gojūon-zu (literally means table of 50 sounds).
To describe these sounds, Katakana and Hiragana alphabets are used.
Another syllable ン is included. It doesn't belong to any row or column. It is the only character that doesn't have a vowel sound right after. It is also the only consonant that stands alone. It is never at the beginning of a word, only at the end.
In total, 46 letters (45+1) are counted as gojūon (50 sounds).
Structure of the Table
The structure is exactly the same as the Hiragana table.
The first row - ア(a), イ(i), ウ(u), エ(e) and オ(o) are five vowels of the Japanese language.
Letters in the same column contain the same vowel.
Letters in the same row are considered to contain the same consonant.
Letters オ(o) and ヲ(o) represent the same sound, but the letter ヲ is rarely used.
In the picture below you can see a more in-depth description of the table above:
|Example of the meaning of the columns and rows of the kana chart.|
Dakuon literally means turbid or murky sound. It is the voiced sound of カ(ka), サ(sa), タ(ta) and ハ(ha)-row syllables.
Dakuon is indicated with two small dashes.
Pronunciation of ジ(ji) and ヂ(ji), ズ(zu) and ヅ(zu) are the same, BUT the letters ヂ and ヅ are rarely used.
Handakuon literally means half-turbid or half-murky sound.
Handakuon is indicated with a small circle.
Yōon is a combination of the consonant of i-column syllables and ya, yu or yo. For example, k + ya = kya.
Yōon is described by i-column letters plus ャ(small ya), ュ(small yu) or ョ(small yo). For example, キ + ャ = キャ(kya).
Pronunciation of ジャ(ja), ジュ(ju), ジョ(jo) and ヂャ(ja), ヂュ(ju), ヂョ(jo) are the same.
Letters ヂャ, ヂュ, ヂョ are rarely used.
Sokuon is a pause (no sound) between two syllables.
Sokuon is described by a small ツ. The difference can be seen here between the regular 'tsu' and the sokuon:
regular --> ツ | ッ <--sokuon
When written in rōmaji, the sokuon is the same letter as the one that follows.
サッカー (sakkā) メッセージ (messēji) ポケット (poketto) カップ (kappu)
Pronunciation of messēji would be: me (pause) sēji
Additional Letters (rarely used, but useful to know!)
ファ(fa) ティ(ti) ドゥ(du) ウェ(we) フォ(fo)
ァ, ィ, ゥ, ェ and ォ(small ア(a) イ(i) ウ(u) エ(e) オ(o)) are attached after particular letters.
ヴァ(va) ヴィ(vi) ヴ(vu) ヴェ(ve) ヴォ(vo)
ヴ is used for (v) sound.
Long Vowels in Katakana!
Long vowels are indicated with ー(horizontal bar).
カーテン (kāten) ビール (biiru) ユーロ (yūro) ケーキ (kēki) コート (kōto)