sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.1. and

1.1.1. How did katakana and hiragana originate?

The earliest written form of Japanese was phonetic, but based on kanji used for their pronunciation rather than meaning. This system is known as man'yōgana (万葉仮名) (see 1.3.10. What is ?). The two kana alphabets, katakana (片仮名) and hiragana (平仮名), began as simplifications of this complicated system.

kstnhmyrwnn
a
毛/无
i
u
州?
e
o
Table 1: The parent kanji of the hiragana characters

kstnhmyrwnn
a
万/末 May be from 尓/爾
i
u
州 ?
e
流/礼 慧/恵
o
Table 2: The parent kanji of each katakana character.

Each katakana and hiragana character is a simplification of one of the man'yōgana kanji.The hiragana are based on a stylized form of the character using sōsho or cursive calligraphy. See 1.3.9.3. Handwritten styles. Katakana, fragment or partial kana, are based on parts of the kanji, often written in the cursive style.

In the past, hiragana took more than one form for each "sound". Since 1900, they have been standardized to unique forms, and the variant forms only live on as hentaigana (変体仮名).

On the right are two tables of the parent kanji of each kana. Some sources differ somewhat from this. These tables are in the gojūon order (see 1.1.5. What is the origin of the kana ordering?), using the tategaki (see 1.3.8. Can Japanese be written right to left?) writing style.

There is some controversy about some of the characters' origins, resulting in discrepancies between sources.

The katakana themselves predate the existence of the syllabic nasal sound which is now represented by ん (See 7.10. What is syllabic n?). This sound came into being around the year 1,000 A.D., after the katakana had already been created, and so originally there was no equivalent katakana. According to Seeley's book on the Japanese writing system, katakana n (ン) did not originate from any particular kanji. However, other sources state that it originates from the kanji 尓/爾 (these are both forms of the same kanji.) The origin of the katakana character for tsu is also unknown, since it appears fully formed in the earliest documents available.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jim Breen and Kouji Ueshiba for more information.


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