I was looking through a list of words that normally are written in kana, instead of their kanji. Two caught my attention because the list has them written in katakana, instead of hiragana. But, as neither are 外来語, writing them in katakana seems strange.

When given no context, is it true that both "honey bee" and "dolphin" are written in katakana (instead of hiragana)?

(Note: I do not care about any theory as to "why" they are exceptions. Simply, when there is no context and they are just words in a list, should both be written in katakana?)

Here is the full list of animals written in kana, instead of kanji:

あかんぼう baby, infant
イルカ   dolphin
うさぎ   a rabbit
かたつむり snail
きつね   a fox
くらげ   a jellyfish
とら    tiger
とんぼ   dragon fly
ばら    rose
ミツバチ  honey bee
やまあらし porcupine
やもめ   a widow
りす    a squirrel

  • Possible duplicate of Why are katakana preferred over hiragana or kanji sometimes?
    – istrasci
    Jun 11 '15 at 2:25
  • @istrasci no. I am definitely not asking "why". The only answer to "why" something is done in any language is"because that is what native speakers do". So, I'm only interested in "イルカ" and "ミツバチ". As those really exceptions? It just seems strange. Every other animal I've studied is either kanji or hiragana.
    – Wrythe
    Jun 11 '15 at 2:58
  • @DariusJahandarie I mean, probably not. Maybe my list is bogus. Just, before I load this into a database table and save for eternity, I want to get the kana correct is all. When saved with no context, what should it be is all.
    – Wrythe
    Jun 11 '15 at 3:53
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    @istrasci I would argue it is different in so much as this asks for specific uses for names of animals, not general Katakana usage. A few other questions have been allowed due to being more specific that similar questions along this reasoning. Further, the thread you like to does not mention animals apart from your short line, "Plant, animal, and mineral names are often written in katakana." Jun 11 '15 at 4:17
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    ウサギってカタカナも結構使うけどなあ・・・ ミツバチはひらがなより漢字かカタカナが多い気がするけど、蜜蜂って、他と比べて漢字が割と簡単だからじゃないですかね・・・ ただ、イルカ、オットセイ、アシカ、アザラシあたりは、漢字・ひらがなよりカタカナのほうが多いでしょうね。
    – Chocolate
    Jun 11 '15 at 4:22

When given no context, is it true that both "honey bee" and "dolphin" are written in katakana (instead of hiragana)?

Yes, but using hiragana is perfectly acceptable.

Names of species is one area where katakana is very often used, but there seem to be no rule to tell which is more widely used to write a specific name. In the examples you mentioned above, ウサギ,カタツムリ, etc. are equally common, and I can't really say which (katakana vs. hiragana) is more common. I feel イルカ is more often seen than いるか, but I wouldn't find it odd if I see いるか without context. (There are contexts where one is probably preferred over the other, but I think this is out of topic for this question).

The common custom to write names of species (plants, animals, insects..) seems to have derived from the convention of academic fields.

Several informations that might interest you:


I wholeheartedly agree with @Ian's answer. There's absolutely no reason why "honey bee" should have been written in katakana, and "snail" not. In fact, in the BCCWJ mentioned in @Yosh's answer, writing "snail" in katakana is more popular by roughly the same margin:

みつばち 70 results
ミツバチ 212 results

かたつむり 77 results
カタツムリ 194 results

("dolphin" is hard to get numbers for, because いるか appears so often as part of ~ているか, which might be a reason to choose katakana in this case. This argument doesn't hold for みつばち, though!)

But that's not the only thing that's wrong with that list. The "baby, infant" entry is rarely written in kana, but practically always in kanji:

赤ん坊 1252 results
あかんぼう 17 results

Another misleading entry:

寡婦 304 results
やもめ 61 results

So, the list you're looking at is

  • inconsistent in its choice of kana syllabary,
  • provides misleading information of what words really are written more frequently in kana, and
  • includes obscure words, like "porcupine", at the expense of more obvious choices, like "candle":

ろうそく 296 results
ロウソク 158 results
ローソク 158 results
蝋燭 48 results

Anyway, all in all, I think you need a better list.


I'm in the translation industry and in my experience if given a list such as yours with no context there is no particular reason those words need to be written in katakana. The English is also inconsistent. Some words are arbitrarily preceded with "a". I think the katakana usage here is the same thing.

I hope this helps


Both words you mentioned have Kanji.

海豚{いるか} - dolphin

蜜蜂{みつばち} - honey bee

Most biological terms are written in Katakana in everyday language (places like aquariums and TV spots). However it is also not uncommon to see them written as Kanji in biological or science texts.

Other examples include...

-海豹{あざらし} (アザラシ) >[Earless Seal]

-海驢{あしか} (アシカ) >[Eared Seal]

-膃肭臍{おっとせい} (オットセイ) >[Fur Seal]

-蜻蛉{とんぼ} (トンボ) >[Dragonfly]

-水黽{あめんぼ} (アメンボ) >[Water Strider]

EDIT: The list you provide I have usually seen as the following.

赤ん坊(a baby is an animal?)、イルカ、うさぎ・ウサギ、蝸牛、狐、くらげ・クラゲ、トラ、トンボ、バラ、ミツバチ、山荒、寡婦(a widow is an animal?)、リス

Depending on where you are usually depends on how they are written. A children's science/biology centre will usually feature all names in ひらがな as some 小学生 aged children have not yet learned カタカナ. However family aquariums and zoos usually feature the 漢字 and カタカナ readings ie. 北極熊{ホッキョクグマ}.

Without knowing more about your list and the person who wrote it, it is somewhat difficult to know why they chose to put all except 2 items as hiragana. The choice whether to use ひらがな or カタカナ (or even Kanji) readings when referring to various animals is largely a stylistic choice by the author as both ひらがな and カタカナ can be read and understood interchangeably in this context. To cover all your bases (aand make it easier to search for), you could always have a third column in your database for カタカナ readings (instead of just ひらかな).

Some sources:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%B5%B7%E8%B1%9A http://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1319142318

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    海驢、海豹、膃肭臍、水黽... こんなもん読めるかっ!www
    – Chocolate
    Jun 11 '15 at 3:21
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    You are saying that the decision to write in hiragana / katakana/ kanji depends on context. That is correct. But, my point is that, where there is absolutely no context, I have 2 animals, out of a list of 20 animals, written in katakana (all others are hiragana). Your saying that the decision to use katakana depends on context does not answer the question.
    – Wrythe
    Jun 11 '15 at 3:32
  • I never said it depends on context (although I did mention two contexts where it is either Katakana or Kanji). I said that most of the time (outside of biological textbooks and studies, ie. in normal conversation) Katakana is used. As to your list, I id not have said list until you updated your post, thus I will have to also fix mine accordingly. Jun 11 '15 at 3:57

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