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Why are there kanji, hiragana and katakana? Is there a logical reason behind this or just tradition?

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@sawa I've seen this misconception a few times before, possibly due to the Japanese use of the word アルファベット, but "alphabet" in English cannot mean "a character or letter, such as 'a', 'b', or 'c'". It only means "a (full) set of letters which can be combined to form words in a language". –  Hyperworm Dec 14 '11 at 2:38
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@sawa Yes to both of those (although I'm not technically sure whether it has to be more than one language - does English have two alphabets {A-Z} and {a-z}, or just one, with each letter in that alphabet having two written forms?). –  Hyperworm Dec 14 '11 at 3:37
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The latter, because the definition of an alphabet is concerned with the relationship between letter and phoneme (as opposed to "character" and "syllable", etc.), not the number of different letterforms in the whole orthography. –  Matt Dec 14 '11 at 6:39
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I think a similar question could be, "Why are there two alphabets, lower and upper case, used for English? Why are Latin and Greek words incorporated into Enlglish when perfectly good English words to express the same concepts exist? Is there a logical reason behind this or just tradition?" –  Stuart Woodward Dec 17 '11 at 12:26
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The answer to this question is probably much easier found with a google search or some reading on Wikipedia. Here's a good place to start: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_writing_system –  MatthewD Aug 6 '12 at 7:58
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6 Answers

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That's a good question, I used to wonder about that myself! This is what I've found out through my own experiences:

When the Chinese brought their written language to Japan, there were only Kanji (Literally, Chinese Characters). Unfortunately, although this kind of ideographic writing system works perfectly for the Chinese language, the Japanese language is structured differently. For example, in Chinese, if you want to say something in the past tense, all you do is add the word for "past" to the verb (it would be the equivalent if every verb in English could be put in the past tense solely by adding '-ed' to the end of it {fall-ed, go-ed}), and in Japanese (as in English) the actual word changes.

What the Japanese needed was a way to notate their verb changes. They developed Hiragana and Katakana from already existing Kanji and assigned them solely phonetic meanings. At some point Katakana came to be used for (among other things*) foreign loan-words, but you can still see examples of Japanese words written in Katakana (for example, on old gravestones) and loan-words written in Hiragana (for example, you can see たばこ for tobacco).

*See link in comments below

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@Dave Yes, there are other uses for Katakana...I thought I mentioned that but it is sort of unclear the way I put it –  silvermaple Dec 14 '11 at 2:45
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@Dave I was thinking the same thing, then I came back and saw your comment, I've edited it :) –  silvermaple Dec 14 '11 at 3:08
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"it would be the equivalent if every verb in English could be put in the past tense solely by adding '-ed'". Are you assuming a one-to-one mapping between kanji and reading here? There is no logical reason why you couldn't read, say, 読了 as yonda, 行了 as itta, and 食了 as tabeta. –  dainichi Aug 6 '12 at 4:55
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@silvermaple, (Chinese) Hanzi to reading is definitely not 1-to-1, although more so than in Japanese. "it matches the spoken language so beautifully"... that might be the case for standard Mandarin, but it's not necessarily the case for a huge number of Chinese dialects. –  dainichi Aug 10 '12 at 0:08
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@silvermaple Here is probably the best reference I know of on that subject. Relevant, too, because Taiwan also has Japanese influences thanks to the occupation. –  Trevor Alexander Jan 7 at 1:18
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Let me reflect this back as a similar question -- why are there two alphabets in English, upper- and lower-case? Is there any logical reason for this, or just tradition? English can clearly be written using only one or the other.

In that context, it's worth noting that everything about language is largely handed down to us from the past. It's very rare to find moments in history when someone sat down and carefully thought out some aspect of a language; for the most part, language evolves over time to suit the needs and circumstances of its speakers. And that's also the answer for why Japanese has kanji, hiragana, and katakana -- the kanji came first, and were borrowed from the Chinese. It was cumbersome to use kanji to handle writing out the changing parts of Japanese words, and so the most commonly used kanji were simplified for those specific roles. And that's the short, probably over-simplified answer.

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"English can clearly be written using only one or the other." - I DON'T THINK THAT'S THE CASE. –  Andrew Grimm Dec 13 '11 at 22:19
    
Your answer is good, but a better analogy of hiragana vs. katakana distinction in English is upright vs. italics. –  sawa Dec 13 '11 at 23:02
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@sawa I think that's true from a usage standpoint, but not really from a learning standpoint. Someone seeing the alphabet we use in English for the first time would not be able to tell 'A' and 'a' were not the same letter. They're close but not the same. –  silvermaple Dec 14 '11 at 0:48
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@AndrewGrimm: That's just a horrible pun. –  Williham Totland Dec 14 '11 at 10:04
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@WillihamTotland: I didn't realize until you emphasized it! –  Andrew Grimm Dec 14 '11 at 10:08
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As for hiragana vs. katakana, it pretty much resembles the distinction between upright vs. italics. People tend to count hiragana and katakana as different scripts, but it makes more sense to consider them as a single script in different syles comparable to upright, italic, bold. In fact, during the history or in special situations (like computers in the old days or telegrams), the roles of hiragana and katakana are often switched. You should count them together as one script. Some bases for claiming that the two kanas are a single script are:

(1) They show an almost one-to-one correspondence (exceptions being the use of the long-vowel symbol and some minor subscript combinations in katakana, which hiragana does not have).

(2) They have several characters which are very similar (such as う and ウ, や and ヤ, か and カ, き and キ, へ and ヘ, り and リ), which goes well with the understanding that they are mere different styles.

(3) Even more of the kanas than mentioned in (2) share the same Chinese character as the origin (such as く and ク, etc.).

As for hiragana/katakana vs. kanji, a charasteriscics of Japanese is that it does not segment the words (for example, by a space). The different graphical impression of kanji vs. kana plays a role in identifying the word boundary. If often coincides with transitions from kanji to kana or the other way around. Chinese can go with chinese characters only because a chinese character corresponds to a single word or a single morpheme, so the layout of a chinese character as a single block already counts for the purpose of identifying the word/morpheme boundary.

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As to identifying word boundaries, sure the mixture of scripts helps, but I don't think that contributes why different forms exist. As the introduce of "常用漢字", a lot of word now take the form of mixed Kanji and Kana, and a lot of word would only use Kana. Kanji can be used to distinguish different meaning, e.g. 書く and 描く are different. And for Chinese, automatic word segmentation is still a challenging research topic. It is even hard to define what is a word in Chinese. –  fefe Dec 14 '11 at 1:08
    
By the logic of your first paragraph, would Romaji (which is sometimes used because of technical limitations, eg programming) be the same script as hiragana and katakana? –  Andrew Grimm Dec 14 '11 at 3:00
    
@fefe What are written in kana despite the exsitence of a kanji are the words that belong to a closed-class words, and usually a sequence of closed class words are attached to a single open-class (meaningful) word, so that still plays a role in identifying the boundary of a meaningful word if not for all the boundaries. –  sawa Dec 14 '11 at 3:01
    
@AndrewGrimm No. A character used in a romaji does not correspond one-to-one to a kana. One or two romaji characters are used to express one kana. And the same romaji character is shared among the kanas that share the same consonant or among the kanas that share the same vowel. And above all, romaji is not part of Japanese. It is not a Japanese script. It is not a script of any language in the sense that it is regularly used. I don't understand what made you come up with that idea. –  sawa Dec 14 '11 at 3:03
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@sawa, the question is not (specifically) about "describing the usage today", but rather "why are there". Although I agree that questions with "Why" can often be answered in many different ways, I think that a historical view would definitely be one of them. –  dainichi Aug 6 '12 at 6:17
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There are no alphabets in Japanese. For a detailed explanation check wiki, though there are probably tons of writing on this subject. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_writing

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It's impolite to say "that's incorrect" without giving at least a brief summary of what is correct. –  Andrew Grimm Dec 13 '11 at 22:19
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This is a nonsensical question which can be answered vastly better than anyone could attempt here by doing a minimal amount of research. My answer was to supply a link that would answer any questions about japanese writing the questioner could have. –  yadokari Dec 14 '11 at 2:03
    
i understand what you mean, but maybe it's a decent rule of thumb to search for 10 seconds on one's own b4 asking a question? the original question was nonsensical just like if i were to ask why does english use hieroglyphs. I mean I was at the same point once but if someone informed me with the answer i supplied here, i would have been grateful. that being said, I love you dave. I have learned from your questions and answers b4 so i owe you one. –  yadokari Dec 14 '11 at 3:53
    
also i know this site got a bit hectic in the past but i kind of like how rigorous some of the debating is. I mean its annoying when i have to reword a question 10 times but hopefully it makes us smarter. –  yadokari Dec 14 '11 at 3:58
    
I fail to see how katakana and hiragana fail to meet the definition of an alphabet given by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet . –  Karl Knechtel Dec 16 '11 at 9:36
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As far as I know, Hiragana is for normal Japanese words, Katakana is for foreign words such as: 'pizza' and 'hamburger'. Kanji is a symbol for a word, in a way it simplifies writing and doesn't cause confusion.

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Many answers are answering "Why does there need to be 3 ways" or "How are they used", but not really why are there. I'll make an attempt...

The one line answer is: Because the need for a phonetic script was so big that kanji which were previously only used for their phonetic value evolved into separate scripts.

In the beginning, there were only Chinese scripts, and people would study them.

Later, people would start using the kanji in these scripts only for their semantic value, and actually pronounce the scripts in Japanese. But since Japanese and Chinese are very different, including word order, this would mean a lot of jumping around in the Chinese text, adding suffixes as particles that were not explicitly marked in Chinese, etc. This excercise is still done by Japanese students when studying Kanbun.

Later again, in order to make scripts easier to read and write in actual Japanese, people would start using some kanji only for their phonetic value, intermingle them with kanji to express verb endings, particles etc. Modern Chinese also uses characters only for their phonetic value in some cases, but obviously, this need is much bigger in Japanese.

Eventually, these phonetic kanji evolved into kana (which are basically simplified phonetic kanji). Katakana and hiragana were created in different ways, but are similar in this sense. They've been used for different purposes through time, but the need to have both of them has survived until current day.

I'm no expert on the history of Japanese scripts, but this should cover the general idea. Feel free to correct me on inaccuracies.

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