The katakana syllabary was derived from abbreviated Chinese characters
used by Buddhist monks to indicate the correct pronunciations of Chinese
texts in the 9th century. At first there were many different symbols
to represent one syllable of spoken Japanese, but over the years the
system was streamlined. By the 14th century, there was a more or less
one-to-one correspondence between spoken and written syllables.
The word katakana "part (of kanji) syllabic script". The "part" refers
to the fact that katakana characters represent parts of kanji.
Characteristics and usage of katakana
The katakana syllabary consists of 48 syllables and was originally
considered "men's writing". Since the 20th century, katakana have
been used mainly to write non-Chinese loan words, onomatopoeic words,
foreign names, in telegrams and for emphasis (the equivalent of bold,
italic or upper case text in English). Before the 20th century all
foreign loanwords were written with kanji.
Katakana are also used to write Ainu, a language
spoken on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Katakana and the kanji from which they developed
In each column the rōmaji appears on the left, the katakana symbols
in the middle and the kanji from which the symbols were derived on the right.
The symbols for 'wi' and 'we' were made obsolete by the Japanese Minsitry
of Education in 1946 as part of its language reforms.
Katakana syllabary (片仮名 / カタカナ)
The symbols on the right are the basic katakana syllabary in the order
they appear in dictionaries and indices (reading from left to right and
top to bottom). Additional sounds (the symbols on the right) are represented
by diacritics and combinations of symbols.
Download this chart in Word,
or PDF format (also includes hiragana).
Sample text in Katakana
This text in standard Japanese
Subete no ningen wa, umarenagara ni shite jiyū de ari, katsu, songen to
kenri to ni tsuite byōdō de aru. Ningen wa, risei to ryōshin
to o sazukerarete ori, tagai ni dōhō no seishinn o motte kōdō
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)