Three alphabets for one language
Q. I’ve heard that Japanese have three written alphabets — and the main one has thousands of letters. How does anyone remember so many letters, and why would you have extra alphabets to complicate things more? What’s up with that?
A. It’s true that Japanese has three written alphabets — but two of them are actually simplifications of the third.
The main alphabet — the one you see in Japanese newspapers or on business cards or pretty much anywhere else — is called kanji, and no one seems to know exactly how many characters there are, though the most common estimate has it at 50,000.
In kanji, which was adapted from written Chinese, each character represents an entire word or idea — which is why there are so many. But, thankfully for non-geniuses, most of those characters are not in use.
In 1981, the Japanese government, in an effort to standardize things a bit, introduced the joyo kanji hyo — a list of characters “for general use.” That list contains 1,945 characters, along with another 166 that are used only for Japanese names. Official documents, textbooks, newspapers and anything else for general consumption stick to the kanji from the list. More specialized documents, however, use more specialized kanji — someone reading such material will need to know 3,000 characters or more.
In the other two Japanese written alphabets — hiragana and katakana — each character denotes a sound, or syllable. Hiragana, weighing in at a much more manageable 48 characters, is used for word endings and in material intended for children or those just learning Japanese. It also is used in small print alongside kanji to clarify — basically by sounding out a kanji character that an average reader might not recognize. Katakana, also with 48 letters, mainly is used to spell non-Japanese (or Chinese) words, like “spaghetti” or “Brad Pitt.”
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