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att. Culture - Calendar - 携帯 vs ケータイ 2
att. Culture - 携帯 vs ケータイ 2
att.JAPAN Issue 19, November 2005

携帯 vs ケータイ 2


A look on Japanese characteristic seen through Japanese Orthography.

While exploring the katakana culture of Japanese youngsters gave me quite an insight, an even more interesting issue entered into my mind when I asked my son when it was that he used katakana most often. "I don't always use katakana. Hiragana's pretty cool, too. But come to think of it, I never think of when to use either one." Oh, so there wasn't a rule after all. But wait, did he say hiragana was "cool"? Well, let's look into it, then!
Hiragana isn't just an easy way for early learners to write Japanese. Its creation goes back to the time kanji was imported from China. The Japanese lacked visual symbols for the language up until then, so kanji quickly spread. But, as you all know, kanji is an ideogram that represent the meanings of words and not the sounds. It's impossible to match Japanese words to the characters that are assigned Chinese phonetics. To come up with a solution, Buddhist monks created simplified versions of kanji to supplement the Chinese sutras, so that they could read them in Japanese. This is the origin of katakana. Because they use parts of the original kanji, the lines are often straight.
Some time later, the need for a phonogram prompted the creation of "Man-yo-gana," from a cursive form of kanji. It was based on Chinese sounds adapted to assign Japanese sounds and used mostly by ladies of the court in the Heian period, thus the nickname "female letters." The cursive kanji form being the parent, it is rounder and plumper than katakana.
Perhaps from the difference in their origins, to this day katakana is considered "masculine, pragmatic, unemotional," while hiragana is regarded "feminine, gentle, tender."
The Japanese are unconsciously aware of this difference and use them appropriately to match various situations in daily life. Today, katakana is mainly used to express foreign words, onomatopoeia, mimetic words and sounds of machines. If you asked a Japanese to write down the words of a robot, he/she would unfailingly write them down in katakana. In contrast, the more a sound gets closer to the wavelength of a human voice, the more it is likely to be associated with hiragana.
Also, it seems that words written in hiragana look more childlike. For example, if a Japanese read "じどうしゃがきた" ("a car came"), he/she would definitely think a toddler said it. It could be the same for "ジドウシャガキタ," but because of the machine-sound image, it looks even more faltering. This may be my personal view, but if hiragana represents the words of a four-year-old, katakana could be that of a two-year-old. Beginning learners of Japanese might be speaking in katakana, while those who have a year or two's experience may be upgraded to hiragana - do forgive me - and my sneaking suspicion tells me that every Japanese would agree.
I apologize that I still haven't been able to understand why my son thinks hiragana is cool, but I hope my observations have at least entertained you. In the next issue, I'd like to talk about the recent trend of avoiding the use of kanji.

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