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I am learning hiragana and I am looking at sa, shi, su, se, so, and za, ji, zu, ze, zo. The characters look the same except the "z" characters have little strokes on the side of the character. Why is this? And what is the difference? When do we use it, and how?

Example:

さ vs ざ

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    Could you clarify what exactly you're confused about? さ sa and ざ za are two different hiragana syllables. The reason that they look similar except for the ゛ is because the ゛ is what is called a dakuten or "voicing mark", and is mostly used to show that a syllable is voiced. You don't really need to know what voicing is, though; just know that さ is pronounced sa and ざ is pronounced za.
    – senshin
    Jan 24, 2015 at 5:37
  • This is like asking why a and ä or å look similar. They are different letters, but come from the same letter a.
    – Earthliŋ
    Jan 24, 2015 at 12:38
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    @senshin: Comments are not for answers.
    – istrasci
    Jan 24, 2015 at 18:14
  • What does "voiced" mean? Is it just.. for example I want to spell strawberry イチゴ it has "dakuten." symbol in it. Is it just another syllable in the hiragana? it looks like "so" but with the dakuten symbol. so it is its own symbol? "ga"
    – Okue
    Jan 25, 2015 at 3:08

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The reason for the similarity is that they are thought of as being variants of the same letter. The little dots are called 濁点{だくてん}, and they designate that you should say the same sound but voiced instead of unvoiced.

The sounds S, T, and K are always spoken with a burst of air, while the voice box is silent. When these sounds are "voiced," that is if your voice is making a noise at the same time as you speak these sounds, they become Z, D, and G instead. Rather than make entirely new kana columns for the voiced variants of these sounds, the 濁点 are used.

The one column where the rule might seem a little strange to English ears is the は・ば・ぱ group. In this case, I would consider ぱ to be unvoiced, ば to be the voiced version, and は to be a different consonant altogether. This one you just need to memorize.

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  • What does "voiced" mean? Is it just.. for example I want to spell strawberry イチゴ it has "dakuten." symbol in it. Is it just another syllable in the hiragana? it looks like "so" but with the dakuten symbol. so it is its own symbol? "ga"
    – Okue
    Jan 25, 2015 at 3:12
  • @Okue Have you learned about katakana yet? イチゴ is i-chi-go in katakana. ゴ has a dakuten because it is pronounced go, and /g/ is the voiced version of /k/ (without the dakuten, you have コ, which is ko). It should not resemble so, which is written そ (hiragana) or ソ (katakana).
    – senshin
    Jan 25, 2015 at 4:19
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    You won't find h/b/p strange if you know the historical evolution.
    – user4092
    Jan 25, 2015 at 5:29
  • I don't know the evolution, and would like to. Of course it seems natural to the Japanese, or they wouldn't have done it. That's why I specified "to English ears".
    – AHelps
    Jan 27, 2015 at 5:46

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