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The Japanese Language: an eclectic mix

By Josian Phillips, 

It is often the case that non-native translators of a language will simultaneously learn written and spoken words at an equal pace, understanding both how to read and write the language as well as the intricacies of pronouncing words. With Japanese, this can be quite different. Whilst spoken Japanese may seem to be just another language, the unique characters that make up written Japanese can be nothing short of daunting.

The Japanese language has a rich and interesting history. Initially there was in fact no way of writing Japanese, and it was purely spoken. Around the end of the eight century, during the Nora era, strides were made to borrow from China and adapt the language to form a modified Chinese/Japanese hybrid. This initial attempt is now referred to as Manyogana, although this has now been widely disregarded due to its complexity.

Over time, as written Japanese spread and became more common throughout the country, the language began to take on a stronger identity of its own. The Chinese characters which had been used to form the language were adapted further and would become known as hiragana and katakana.

As the two founding sets of characters of Japanese, hiragana and katakana are often referenced together as kanamoji. Each of the two consists of 47 characters – making 94 in total for kanamoji – with each representing a different sound. Because they are essentially different alphabets, there are many similarities between hiragana and katakana. Several of the characters have an extremely similar appearance and phonetic.

Japanese words vs foreign words

One of the primary differences between the two sets of characters is the words that they are used for. Hiragana is mainly used for native, Japanese words whilst katakana is favoured for foreign language. Readers familiar with the nuances between the two will instantly be able to spot a word that is not originally from Japan based on this alone.

With two sets of 47 characters, the Japanese language may not seem scary after all. However, kanji is where the numbers begin to stack up. Modern Japanese is an eclectic mix of hiragana, katakana and kanji, with the latter commanding more than 8,000 characters. This is an unbelievable figure by the standards of most countries and undoubtedly accounts for the Japanese language’s reputation as a tricky tongue to master.

As if that wasn’t enough to take on board, many of the kanji characters carry multiple meanings. In order to fully understand what the writer is trying to say, readers must factor in the context of the surrounding characters, placing the word into a story of the surrounding elements. This makes it difficult to define kanji characters as standalone word, and again makes Japanese an extremely difficult language to understand – particularly for non-native speakers.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

Pronunciation is key in Japan, and this is just as true to written language as it is to the spoken word. In some cases hiragana characters are placed above the kanji characters in order to alter the intended pronunciation and, therefore, meaning. Despite appearing in exactly the same way as ordinary hiragana, this process is referred to as furigana.

Aesthetically speaking, Japanese characters can be impossible to interpret for non-native speakers who are familiar with a traditional Latin alphabet. It is for this reason that rōmaji was first introduced. Rōmaji uses the verbal pronunciation of traditional Japanese and converts it into the Latin alphabet, so that it can be better understood by a Western audience.

Although rōmaji is recognised as a form of Japanese, it does not actually use any traditional Japanese characters from hiragana, katakana or kanji. It is much easier to learn for speakers of English and traditional Western languages but is essentially more of a starter language. Think of rōmaji as a gateway to the full language.

Which one is most useful for marketing?Purists may insist on delving into the traditional language immediately, whilst those looking for a basic understanding may prefer to start things off with rōmaji in order to learn how to say a few simple words.

Ultimately, to effectively market to Japan it is necessary to incorporate their native language. This means that rōmaji is inefficient by itself; to truly capture the attention of a native Japanese audience, kanji is essential.

Having stemmed from borrowed Chinese symbols, the Japanese language has flourished into an incredible and expansive language. Used correctly it allows speakers to express themselves in vivid detail, and aesthetically it is a truly beautiful language.

If you decide to tackle hiragana, katakana, kanji or rōmaji and falter at first, don’t be discouraged. For, as the Japanese say: “Saru mo ki kara ochiru” – “even monkeys fall from trees.”

If you’d like to chat to Brightlines about how you can reach your global customers through professional translation please Call 01225 580770 or click here for a quote. We are happy to help, and advice is always free.

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