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I am familiar with the history of why these two writing systems were invented, and my question comes more from a modern practical standpoint.

In my understanding, hiragana and katakana both have same sounds, they are just written differently. Katakana is for foreign words and onomatopoeia, and hiragana for everything else.

So I'm just curious why weren't these two systems merged into one to make it easier to learn to write in Japanese?

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    Orthography / writing systems / spelling habits aren't developed to make things easier to write, they're developed to make things easier to read. Sound alone is rarely sufficient to convey dense information efficiently, and we all read much, much faster than we listen or speak. If your language uses the Latin alphabet, consider how much more difficult it would be to read if it merged upper case and lower case letters, and had no concept of bold or italics.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 1, 2022 at 6:17
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    I HAVE NO IDEA WHY THERE MIGHT BE DIFFERENT CHARACTER SETS WHOSE SPECIFIC USAGE HELPS READERS UNDERSTAND AND INTERPRET THE TEXT. Sep 2, 2022 at 2:57
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    @dROOOze I'm not an expert, but weren't cursive and 行書 developed to make things easier to write? (I agree with the spirit of your comment, but I don't believe ease of writing is totally ignored in orthography.)
    – Kimball
    Sep 4, 2022 at 12:04
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    @dROOOze, thanks for your comment. I started to understand more once I learnt what orthography is. That being said, bold or italics aren't really different writing systems as in the case with hiragana and katakana. If one knows the latin alphabebt, one can read bold and italics automatically. That doesn't seem to be the case for hiragana and katakana in my experience.
    – Larper
    Sep 7, 2022 at 6:53

3 Answers 3

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“What’s up with upper case and lower case? We have two different forms for each letter, sometimes similar, sometimes completely different. Why weren’t these merged to make it easier to learn to write?”

Not poking fun at all—rather, recasting your post to point out that we English speakers deal with two different glyph forms for a single letter every single time we read or write—and we don’t blink an eye at that. So when learning hiragana and katakana, hearken back to your childhood days of learning the alphabet, and learning two different forms for each letter.

It’s really not that different.


And, come to think of it, some letters have more than just two glyph forms—consider alternative lower-case forms of A, such as the book form a with the loopy bit on top, or the usually handwritten form ɑ without the top. Or for G, such as the book form with a closed loop for the bottom, and the handwritten form ɡ with the bottom as just a hook. Come to think of it, kana are actually a bit simpler—while there are more letters in total, each letter only has the two forms (hiragana and katakana), at least in modern usage.

(For those interested in multiple historical variants for each kana, see also the "Hentaigana" article on Wikipedia, and this PDF from Unicode.org listing different hentaigana forms.)

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    What’s up with upper case and lower case? We have two different forms for each letter, sometimes similar, sometimes completely different. Why weren’t these merged to make it easier to learn to write? Don't forget cursive!
    – istrasci
    Sep 1, 2022 at 16:47
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    Japanese too has two forms for そ. japanese.stackexchange.com/q/53835/5010
    – naruto
    Sep 1, 2022 at 23:35
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    Greek and Cyrillic have similar upper/lower case systems. Hebrew does not, but it has special word-terminal forms of various letters that provide a similar benefit to reading. Arabic has both word-initial and word-terminal forms. Sep 2, 2022 at 3:00
  • @naruto, indeed about そ, and arguably also for ち and さ and な -- all of these vary slightly as to whether a specific stroke is separate from or connected to the following stroke (that is, whether there's a single line or a gap between lines). Sep 2, 2022 at 17:41
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    @NattoYum, why would you want to merge hiragana and katakana? The difference is useful, much as the difference between Latin-alphabet upper-case and lower-case is useful. Merging is not useful, as it removes this distinction while providing no particular benefit. Sep 4, 2022 at 5:09
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The distinction between Katakana and Hiragana helps with reading. Not because you can distinguish loan words from other words, but rather because you can easier break the sentence apart.

Usually, the parts of a Japanese sentence written in Hiragana are particles, modal verbs, inflectional endings, etc., which usually follow parts written in Kanji or Katakana. So every time the system switches back to Kanji/Katakana, there is usually a semantic break.

To illustrate this: While

すもももももももものうち

seems unparsable, adding katakana and kanji breaks it up nicely:

スモモも 桃も 桃のうち

(Spaces mark the switch back to kanji/katakana)

While most originally Japanese words have kanji, most (Western) foreign words don't, but especially for foreign words readers may need some aid to detect the word boundaries. it also helps differentiating function words from the names. In

カインがアベルを殺害した

we can see clearly that there are two names, and が and を are not part of them. (There are better examples)

Since learning additional <50 chars on top of the >2000 (essential) kanji is not too big a burden, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Well, most of this could also be achieved with spaces...

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  • I wonder if that explains why they chose to make the angular katakana be the stem, rather than the more curvilinear Hiragana. Kanji tend to be kind of angular, apparently since their shapes were adapted for block printing, so, in that sense, I guess Katakana look more like Kanji than Hiragana do.
    – H. H.
    Sep 4, 2022 at 9:50
  • "Since learning an additional <50 chars on top of the >2000 (essential) kanji is not too big a burden" I think that's the most important part of the explanation right there. Also, kids who don't know all the katakana and kanji they need can and do just write in all hiragana, as I understand it, and writing without katakana is no worse than writing without kanji.
    – H. H.
    Sep 4, 2022 at 9:52
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Eiríkr Útlendi's answer covers one key aspect of why the systems weren't merged (it's just a quirk of writing systems). But there's another answer that's actually already in your question itself: Hiragana and Katakana serve different grammatical functions in writing. If they were merged, Japanese writing would lose that method to distinguish loan words and onomatopoeia from other words.

Whether the gains of this grammatical function outweighs the cost of having to learn a whole second set of characters is subjective, but I'd argue that it's only marginally more difficult to learn Katakana in addition to Hiragana (especially once you compare it to the time cost of learning Kanji).

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    Arguably, the systems DID "merge", in that Katakana and Hiragana used to just be 2 different conventions with no special significance to which one is used, but now they are used for different types of morphemes. I.e., meaning was given to a formerly meaningless distinction to make the distinction more useful.
    – H. H.
    Sep 4, 2022 at 9:46

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