Hiragana

Last night was the second meeting of the “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar.  The main event was to be the first two sections of Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, but I had too many lead in activities, so we barely got started on that discussion, and it will have to continue on line.  Wolf’s book is about how the human brain came to read, an activity for which it was not designed, and has not yet completely evolved to do.  Reading is accomplished by kludging together visual and language processing systems in various parts of the brain.  There is no reading center in the brain.  The complexity of the interactions between systems is such that reading difficulties can be hard to categorize or diagnose.

The writing system trains the brain to read, so part of Wolf’s development of these ideas is a history of writing, from pictographic symbols, to logographic writing with a sign for each word, such as ancient Sumerian, to hybrid systems combining logographic writing with a syllabary or partial alphabet, such as ancient Egyptian or modern Chinese, to fully alphabetic writing such as that developed by the Phoenicians and adopted by the Greeks.  I wanted my students to have some “hands-on” familiarity with a writing system different from English.  I decided to create an exercise using Japanese hiragana.

Japanese use a hybrid syllabic and logographic system.  A syllabary is a set of characters that represent each syllable or consonant/vowel combination possible in the language, unlike an alphabet which represents each possible sound.    There are actually two syllabaries in Japanese: hiragana, which is used to represent grammatical relationships between words, which are represented by Chinese characters, and katakana, which is used to represent foreign words.   I created a list of Japanese words and phrases including city names such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and useful phrases such as konnichiwa (Good afternoon) and gomen nasai (I’m sorry) and domo arigato (Thank you).

The city names would normally be represented by Chinese characters or kanji.  However, the last time I was in Tokyo I was riding on a subway and I noticed that the electronic sign announcing the upcoming station was scrolling the names in romanji, which is is Roman letters as English uses, kanji, and then hiragana.  I asked my wife why they were using hiragana.  She said it was for school children who had not yet learned either kanji or English.  I found this eminently sensible, and the it has the added advantage of turning the subway into a kind of Rosetta Stone for leaning kanji.  Anyway, there is precedent for using hiragana in this way.

However, when I started to transliterate my list into hiragana, I found that the system was not quite as simple as I had thought.  I had several hiragana charts, including a couple that provided unicode in hexidecimal that allowed me to produce the characters in Word.  I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how to produce the character for “kyo.”  It turns out that you use “ki” plus a small “yo.”  I found out sort of accidentally that the “wa” at the end of “konnichiwa” should actually be spelled “ha” because originally it was part of a sentence, and when “wa” is used as a particle, it is spelled “ha” even though it is pronounced “wa.”

Just as I was becoming very insecure about my exercise, a student knocked on my door wanting to talk about an essay.  One of the writing center tutors had given her contradictory advice, and she wanted a second opinion.  As I resolved that problem, I noticed that she had a Japanese name.  I asked here if she spoke and read Japanese.  She started to apologize for speaking too much Japanese and not learning English.   I said, “Wait, can you help me with something?”  It turned out that she was a former grammar school teacher and was very familiar with teaching hiragana to small children.  She took out a red pen and corrected my work very professionally.  She said that I had made all the mistakes that the kids make, but she was surprised that I had spelled “konnichiwa” correctly because many Japanese get it wrong.  I probably would have gotten a “B-“.

Most of my mistakes involved long vowels.  “Tokyo,” for example should actually be romanized as “Toukyou,” including the “u” character that is not really pronounced.  I decided that revising my spelling in most cases would make the exercise too difficult for my students, so I left it as it was.  My purpose was to have them work with new symbols and get a feel for how a syllabary worked, not to teach them to read Japanese.

I handed out a hiragana chart from Wikipedia at the start of class, telling them that there would be a quiz on it.  They laughed.  I think I have lost the ability to frighten them.  After another activity, I gave them the list of words, with the hiragana spellings mixed up.  They had to draw a line from the English spelling to the corresponding hiragana version.  They treated it like a sudoku puzzle, and they had fun with it.  One student had spent time in Japan, so he did it really quickly.

Somehow, they accepted this grammar school exercise as a reasonable thing to do in a graduate seminar.  They are probably still taking about it.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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One Response to Hiragana

  1. jimsturges says:

    Sugoi ne — sugoi yo! Yoku de ki mashta. I enjoyed this post the most of all. I have also tried to learn a little kanji and hiragana. Muzukashii ne! Great exercise; one they’ll remember. Oyasumi nasai–Jim-kun

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