Japan’s writing system is probably the first thing that boggles the mind of an English speaker when they start learning Japanese. The forbidding kanji express meaning in the form of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, while the curvy hiragana fill in the gaps with word endings and grammatical functions. Where does katakana fit in? It may seem like the odd one out, but in some ways, it is actually the most fundamental of the three.
Katakana was created during the Heian period (9th century) by Buddhist monks who omitted fully writing out the kanji they had borrowed from China. They broke off a number of parts from the original characters and these came to be used as a kind of shorthand script. Below are some examples of the origins of a few characters:
江 ➝ エ (e)
利 ➝ リ (ri)
不 ➝ フ (fu)
己 ➝ コ (ko)
So how is katakana actually used today? Let’s look at five examples.
The most well-known use of katakana is to write words that have been borrowed from other languages. For example, mastering katakana will take you a long way towards being able to read a menu in Japanese. From the word menyuu (menu) itself to common items like hanbaagaa (hamburger), chiizu (cheese), raisu (rice), suupu (soup), pasuta (pasta), and sarada (salad), many words will be familiar to English speakers if they can just manage to decipher them. Don’t let your guard down, though. Some words of English origin have taken on a life of their own in Japanese. Furaido (fried) potato means “french fries,” manshon (mansion) means “apartment,” and saabisu (service) means “free.” Additionally, many loan words don’t come from English at all. Famous examples include baito (part time job) from the German arbeiten (work), and even the famous food tempura, which actually comes from the Portuguese word tempero (spice/condiment).
Looking up from your menu, you may notice that some nearby ads or even the restaurant’s name itself also feature katakana. In this case, it functions similarly to using italics in English, drawing attention to what’s most important. For example, kuruma would usually be written with kanji, but in the picture above it’s emphasized with katakana.
In addition to foreign words used in Japanese, Japanese words being spoken by a non-native speaker are sometimes written in katakana too. This reflects the speaker’s accent and unfamiliarity with the words. As an even more extreme example, a non-human speaker whose voice may sound particularly unusual might also speak in katakana. An example show up in the manga Uchuu Kyoudai (Space Brothers). A robot assistant to some astronauts living on a moon base and a patient suffering from advanced ALS who speaks via a specialized machine both have voices represented in katakana.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Where English comics write sounds like “pow!”, “bam!”, “creeeaaakkkk” in the background, manga uses katakana.
One last common usage is to show how something is pronounced, kind of like how the international phonetic alphabet is used in dictionaries. For example, katakana may be written above or below English words to represent their approximate pronunciation to the Japanese ear, or when filling in a form people may write their name in kanji and also provide the reading in katakana.
So what does all of this mean? The one thing that all these cases have in common is sound. A word from a foreign language is a sound to the unaccustomed ear. When robots speak, they produce sounds that we have to work with to resolve into words. When a dictionary prints a pronunciation, it’s trying to convey the sound of a word. Katakana represents sound divorced from meaning. Pure sound, nothing more, and nothing less. When it comes to language, what could be more fundamental than that?