History of Japanese Hiragana
Hiragana was created by simplifying some of the kanji, the more complex symbols. There are 2136 “common use” kanji. Quite a set to start with. Thus hiragana has evolved gradually over the last 1500 years.
Historically, it was the writing taught to upper-class ladies, gaining the nickname “lady’s writing”. The cursive, round lettering of hiragana may also have been a factor. Possibly the first novelist in history, Murasaki Shikibu wrote her works in hiragana around 1000 AD. Her Tale of Genji, and the Murasaki Shikibu Diaries are enjoyed all over the world today.
The current form of hiragana was standardized around 1900. Thank God it was; it it wasn’t there’d still be multiple ways to represent the same sound. Just imagine how confusing that’d be!
Uses of Hiragana
Hiragana are the first characters children learn. They start early, in kindergarden. If you’ve been to Japan you may have seen orderly groups of kindergarden children marching down the street, sporting yellow caps, with nametags written in hiragana.
By the time they arrive to elementary school at age 6, they can read and write hiragana. They have to; the more complex kanji are taught from 1st grade. In Japan it is expected that everyone over 4-5 years old can read hiragana. Important warnings, road signs, and anything that is to be universally understood is written in hiragana.
Hiragana sometimes appears in small print above kanji, giving the reading of the character. In this form it’s called furigana. It may appear in a wide range of texts, including comics aimed at young readers who won’t know all the kanji yet, or technical documents aimed at adults that use uncommon kanji.
In normal text, hiragana is used to write suffixes, and “filler” words that don’t have a kanji. This use creates the grammatical structure of the sentence. Usually there is no blank space between words; the changes from kanji to hiragana and vice versa denote the end of words.
Kanji is in red in the example below. The rest is hiragana.
１２時から食べます。—> Notice there’s no break between the characters.
１２ji kara tabemasu. —> Changes between kanji and hiragana mark the end of words.
(I)eat at (from) 12 o’clock. —> Meaning.
The Place of Hiragana in Language Study
Then it comes back to bite you in the butt with a vengeance. For one, you’ll discover how English is not suitable for conveying the sounds of the Japanese language. Then, once you’ve learned enough words to speak at a basic level, you’ll notice how many of them sound similar but mean different things. It’s easier to remember the difference if you know how they’re written. It’s the only way that worked for me, actually. English letters, or “romaji” as the Japanese call them, quickly turn from aid to hindrance. Generally speaking, the earlier you learn hiragana, the better. It will save you from forming bad pronounciation habits, which are difficult to correct later on. Further, it’ll provide an easier way to remember vocabulary and a deeper understanding into the structure of the words. Which will be handy for the next step, kanji.
How many Hiragana characters are there?
Thanks to “ye” and a few others being “retired” recently, now there’s only 46 in common use today. That may sound like a lot – English has 26 letters. But then it’s still less than the 2000+ kanji. Learning them is not all that difficult, really. On this site I’ll be providing unique videos that you can practice hiragana with, pen and notepad in hand.