Phonetics: Hangul vs Hiragana / Katakana

Like Korean, the Japanese written language started off using Chinese characters. Throughout the centuries the Japanese created their own letters (kana) which evolved into what is used current day: a combination of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. A mix of hiragana and kanji is used for the majority of text while katakana is used for loan words (e.g. the word computer is the same in Japanese, but spelled with katakana: コンピュータ) and has the same sounds with different letters as hiragana

Hiragana and Katakana

Each letter in hangul and hiragana is represented with only one correct pronunciation. There are a few exceptions to this with letters that are sometimes silent, but a lot of confusion is avoided in comparison to English. Think about words like weird, wired, weed, weeded, wed, and dew. A lot of different rules come into play to determine the correct pronunciation of the letter ‘e’ in each of those words but this problem does not exist with hangul and hiragana. There are a few letters that sound the same when pronounced, but are written differently which can make spelling more difficult.

Kanji are characters from the Chinese alphabet, with some slight variations, that are not phonetic. So it’s possible to understand the meaning of a certain kanji by looking at parts of the character that it’s made up of without being able to pronounce it. Hiragana is probably the most comparable to hangul, since it is composed of letters by sound. But before comparing the two, let’s take a look at how hiragana and kanji are used together. Kanji is mainly used for nouns and the root of a verb, whereas hiragana is used for linking words such as “the, at, is, etc” and for conjugating verbs (present/past tense, have to ~, want to ~, should do ~, etc.). For example, in the sentence, “餅を食べました” (I ate mochi), the first word, 餅, is in kanji, and means mochi (a rice cake dessert). The character following, を, is in hiragana, and marks the main object of the sentence. The characters following, 食べたました, make up the verb “ate.” 食べ is the base word/verb for eat, and ました conjugates the word from “eat” to “ate” (present to past tense).

Japanese Sentence

Kanji can also be broken down and written in hiragana. For example the word 未来 (future) written in hiragana would be みらい. Hiragana, like hangul, has letters for each vowel but hiragana does not have individual letters for consonants. Instead, there is a letter for each consonant-vowel combination. The consonants always have a vowel attached to it but the vowels have their own characters. Hangul always connects two or more characters, but the consonants and vowels can be separated into their own characters.

Hangul and Hiragana Consonants and Vowels

As the consonant letters in hiragana are always paired with a vowel, the use of diacritics plays an important role in simplifying the alphabet. There are only two and they indicate a substitution for the selected consonant sound. One is called a “ten-ten” which is composed of two short lines and it means to change the consonant from a ‘h’, ‘s’, or ‘k’ sound to a ‘b’, ‘z’, or ‘g’ sound respectively. The other is called a “maru” which is a small circle and denotes that the consonant should be pronounced with a ‘p’ sound instead of an ‘h’ sound. These diacritics allow for a simpler set of letters as it rids the need for four extra sets of letters. In hangul, this isn’t as useful since consonants and vowels are individual letters.

Hiragana Maru and Ten Ten

In speech, Japanese also differs in rhythm from Korean. When broken down to hiragana, Japanese is only made up of one consonant and one vowel, or just one vowel, with the exception of two characters: ん (pronounced like ‘ng’), the only singular consonant, and つ which when used smaller next to a letter it can denote a shorter sounding vowel. Hangul creates a similar sound to small つ with double consonants like in the word 오빠 (oh-ppa) would be spelled おっぱ (o-っ-pa) in hiragana. So with hangul the short pause between the o and p sound is marked on the p sound, whereas in hiragana it would be marked after the o sound. The use of smaller letters (similar to small tsu) that start with the y consonant in hiragana can also be used to omit the vowel sound of certain letters and only use the consonant for sounds such as kya and pyo. These sounds do not need an extra rule in hangul, again, as the consonants are individual letters. The only exception is that the y sound is always connected to a vowel in hangul.

In Korean there are many ways put letters together within a grid of 2-5 letters (이, 일, 완, 있, 왔). This gives more flexibility for representing more sounds with hangul than hiragana. As a side note, there is one more character in katakana that is neither a vowel or consonant. The ー is used to mark that a vowel sounds should be elongated. The world コーラ (cola) uses this to show that the o sound should be pronounced slightly longer. If it were written as コオラ (co-o-ra) then the o sound in the middle would be pronounced as a separate sound, with a slight pause in between (coh-oh-ra).

And lastly, the easiest difference to see between Korean and Japanese text is that there are no spaces in Japanese writing because the use of kanji is easily read without the use of spaces.

There are always different elements to each alphabet and one can see that Japanese is a lot harder to learn with kanji added to the mix. It’s fascinating to see where the similarities and differences lie in each alphabet and to see the dynamics of characters as they function to create sounds.

  • John Hopkins

    をis the object-marker, not subject-marker in Japanese