When learning Japanese one question you surely think about is “What is Katakana used for?”

Here’s our guide to help you memorize when to use this syllabary.

What Is The Katakana Syllabary

As you may know, Katakana is one of the two Japanese syllabaries, the second one being the Hiragana. These two only represent sounds, while kanji represent meanings or words. 

You may think that Katakana is not necessary because you can make sounds into letters with just the Hiragana that you learned as a beginner. But that’s not true. 

There are 48 katakana signs, but with more combinations compared to the Hiragana

But let’s analyze its meaning deeply. 

How Was Katakana Originated

The name itself, 片仮名 (かたかな), it’s composed of the kanji 片 kata, meaning “a piece”, and 仮名 kana, the proper name of the Japanese characters. In fact, Katakana’s characters derive from fragments of kanji, as in the image below.

Indeed, they are “pieces of kana”.

In ancient times, writing kanji was complicated, so only partial components were extracted and used for writing. This was the beginning of Katakana

Many of its characters not only represent the sounds of the Japanese language but are also used as part of the composition of kanji

Some of the characters are also used as kanji, such as “ タ (ta)” for “ 夕 (yuu = evening)” and “ ロ (ro)” for “ 口 (kuchi = mouth). ”

Additionally, there are also Katakana combinations that form kanji characters, such as “ ナ (na)” and “ ロ (ro)” for “ 右 (migi = right)” and “ ナ (na)” and “ エ (e)” for “(hidari = left).”

As you can see, there are many elements in Katakana that form the basis for kanji. 

In addition, Katakana has the convenience of representing the sounds of any language. The original pronunciation sounds of foreign words are slightly different in the Japanese language due to the fitting of Katakana pronunciations.

When To Use Katakana Words

You may have noticed that foreign words written in Katakana do have their Japanese counterpart. For example, to say “concert”, you can use コンサート, from English. However, a full Japanese word for it written in only Kanji do exist 音楽会 (おんがくかい - ongakukai). Why use a Katakana word then? Let’s see why and when to use them.

Transcription of Loan Words

First of all, Katakana it’s mainly used for loanwords, 外来語 (がいらいご - gairaigo). This is mainly because we can combine the Katakana characters to create more sounds than the Hiragana ones: the word “party”, for example, it’s always written using Katakana like this: パーティー. Think about the pronunciation of the sound “ty”: there’s no corresponding sound for it, in Japanese. In fact, in Hiragana the closer sound for it it’s “ち”. Using Katakana, however, we can create this sound, combining テ and a little ィ, to form ティ. 

In addition, using Katakana will make it instantly clear that the word mentioned is a foreign one. Consequently, they should be pronounced in a “foreign accent”. Of course, this works for the recent Social Media terms too! インスタグラム → Instagram; フェイスブック → Facebook

Use It To Express Countries

By learning the Japanese language, the first field where you can find Katakana words is when talking about foreign countries. In fact, they are all expressed in Katakana, trying to transliterate them from their original language:

アメリカ → America; イギリス → Igirisu; フランス → Furansu; ドイツ → Doitsu (from the German word “deutsch”); イタリア → Itaria (from the Italian word “Italia”) 

Can Katakana Words Be Combined?

It’s also common to abbreviate these loanwords by combining them, to create new ones. Let’s see some examples:

  • デパート means “department store”. But, instead of writing the two words singularly, the first two syllables from both of them are combined together to form one word. 
  • ホカンス is a particular one. It comes from the combination of ホテル (Hoteru - Hotel), and バカンス (Bakansu - Vacation). It was originally coined in South Korea in the 20s, meaning “enjoying the vacation atmosphere”. 

Moreover, you can combine katakana and Japanese words together: 

  • 消しゴム - keshigomu (eraser) 
  • 空オケ, or simply カラオケ, karaoke, which comes from 空 (kara = empty) and オケ, the abbreviation for “orchestra”. 

Katakana For Technical Language and Proper Names

Another main usage of Katakana words is the scientific names of animals and plants, together with proper people’s names. 

In fact, at the zoo, the animals’ names are always written like サル (saru = monkey), トラ (tora = tiger), ゴリラ (gorira = gorilla) in katakana, even if they have their own kanji.

And, of course, if you come to Japan and you are not Japanese, your name will be transliterated using Katakana:

ジョン          John

アレックス   Alex

ヴァレリア      Valeria

Emphasizing Words And Expressions

Lastly, Katakana is used to emphasize some words, especially on signs and advertisements, but also when using onomatopoeia words. Here’s our guide for the most common Japanese onomatopoeias, most of them written in Katakana

As you can see, both words that imitate artificial or natural sounds, and mimetic words are Katakana words:

ザーザー zaazaa, the heavy rain; ワンワン wanwan, the dog’s “woof woof”;  ガチャガチャ gacha gacha, the sound of pressing buttons on a keyboard.

About emphasizing words, the bad ones, like ダメ (dame - wrong) or バカ (baka - idiot) are written using Katakana.

One Word Communication: Learn the Japanese Language By Mastering Katakana Words

When learning a new language, the first thing you should focus on is surely learning vocabulary. You can always communicate basic concepts to someone by telling only words, without knowing the proper grammatical form. 

And of course, this works for the Japanese language, too. But, in this case, lots of Japanese vocabulary comes from the English language. Learning how to say them and the rules behind Katakana and English will really help you get the hang of it. That’s why one of the features of our content partner, Hiragana Times magazine, is that English is written underneath the Katakana. 

Thank you for reading!

Author: Valeria (graduated at Ca’Foscari University Japanese Studies)

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