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I'm just beginning to learn Japanese. The grammar and kanji I can follow along thanks to similarities with Korean, but the hiragana is confusing the heck out of me. There seems to be no pattern at all whatsoever, even in letters that look very similar:

ね (ne), れ (re), わ (wa)

こ (ko), た (ta), に (ni)

ち (chi), さ (sa), き (ki)

Is there any rhyme or reason to how the hiragana letters are shaped? Or do Japanese speakers just memorize them growing up?

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    To put it all in context: "Is there any rhyme or reason to how the hiragana letters are shaped?" This is a question that pretty much only Koreans would ask :) Korean might be the only language in existence where the shapes of letters do follow a reason. – user22041 May 7 '17 at 10:00
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    If you mean whether there's any relationship between the shape of the letters and the sounds of vowels and consonants, then no, there isn't. The shapes are arbitrary. You'll notice, however, that a few hiragana/katakana pairs resemble each other, like に/ニ, か/カ , う/ウ, も/モ etc. (because they came from the same kanji). @Helen perhaps also abugidas like devanagari or 梵字 bonji, if you consider the vowel-modified symbols as "one letter", and similarity of shape/sound as "reason" (though it's not really motivated by the form of the voicing apparatus, like Korean). – melissa_boiko May 7 '17 at 10:04
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I assume you mean to ask whether or not there is a pattern so that you can easily remember them. As far as I know, the answer is "no".

However, a little historical context wouldn't hurt. The very short, superficial story is that hiragana and katakana were derived from the Chinese characters as simplified writing systems. If you look at the characters from which they were derived, perhaps it could help them stick in your mind, especially if you can follow kanji. For the benefit of future readers, I also mention katakana. Below, I quote from Wikipedia.

Hiragana: History

The forms of the hiragana originate from the cursive script style of Chinese calligraphy. The figure below shows the derivation of hiragana from manyōgana via cursive script. The upper part shows the character in the regular script form, the center character in red shows the cursive script form of the character, and the bottom shows the equivalent hiragana. Note also that the cursive script forms are not strictly confined to those in the illustration.

enter image description here

Katakana: History

Katakana was developed in the 9th century (during the early Heian period) by Buddhist monks by taking parts of man'yōgana characters as a form of shorthand, hence this kana is so-called kata (片, ‘partial, fragmented’).

For example, ka (カ) comes from the left side of ka (加, literally ‘increase’, but the original meaning is no longer applicable to kana). The adjacent table shows the origins of each katakana: the red markings of the original Chinese character (used as man'yōgana) eventually became each corresponding symbol.

enter image description here

For more historical context, see this related post: Why was both katakana and hiragana created?

To further help the reader, I provide some mnemonic devices in place of a hard and fast rule to easily writing hiragana and katakana. Below I have reproduced just one set I found at kidspicturedictionarycom: Hiragana – Katakana Picture Mnemonics. However, there should be dozens more if you search online.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Two more resources:

  1. Japanese Language Course Support Site at Georgia Tech
    1. Hiragana
    2. Katakana
  2. Tofugu.com
    1. Hiragana
    2. Katakana
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Is there any good way to learn the shape of hiragana letters?

Yes, there are good ways!

  1. How to learn the shape of hiragana letters easily for non-native learners in English
    http://mkikuchi.faculty.gatech.edu/WebCTVista/JAPN1001/contents/Lesson02/hiragana/mnemonic-hiragana.html

  2. How to write hiragana letters for non-native learners in English
    https://yosida.com/en/hiragana.html

Is there any reason to how the hiragana letters are shaped?

Yes, there is a reason!

Kanji is inconvenient to use in daily life because it has a lot of number of strokes/lines. So the hiragana was born by gradually simplifying kanji, and the reading of each hiragana is the first reading of the syllable of the corresponding kanji in old days from which the hiragana was born. Interestingly, each hiragana has only its unique reading, but has no relating meaning of the corresponding kanji. You can watch how each hiragana is made by simplifying the corresponding kanji at the following sites:

あいうえお https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlB2JmolzTk
かきくけこ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9lSSieRKkc
さしすせそ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsFPFWefk1M
たちつてと https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwsMoEAcxGY
なにぬねの https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YJJ1hAd4Zo
はひふへほ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dup4u_TRme8
まみむめも https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Pjw8SvWaL4
や ゆ よ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Pjw8SvWaL4
らりるれろ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdzuHp4aFXI
わ を ん https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7NtAPnmbHA

More precisly, refer to the aritcle here.

Someone said hiragana is still complicated as you said, so katakana was invented after the birth of hiragana by extracting some strokes/lines from kanji. Therefore the strokes/lines of katakana are straight like that of kanji. I don't explain katakana further.

  • Thank you! And those videos are just mesmerizing to watch :o – user3932000 May 7 '17 at 15:44

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