The Japanese Alphabet: The 48 Essential Characters

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9780789209597: The Japanese Alphabet: The 48 Essential Characters

In the fourth century A.D., through contact with Korea, Japan adopted the Chinese writing system which had been sweeping through Asia along with the newBuddhist religion. Modern Japanese writing uses three main scripts: kanji (Chineseideograms), which are used for proper names, for nouns, and for verb roots; hiragana(deriving from the terms hira, common, and kana borrowed character), used for adding to and distinguishing from sequences of Japanese grammar; and katakana (from kata, part, and kana, borrowed character or rather, partially borrowed character), which is used to denote foreign pronunciations or to write terms borrowed from foreign languages. With large depictions and clear step-by-step instructions, Mandel illustrates all 48 sounds in Japanese, presented in the traditional iroha order, in hiragana, katakana, and kanji forms, and each entry is accompanied with its roma-ji, orRoman phonetic spelling. The author clearly indicates the correct sequence for writing the individual strokes, and provides each kana, or character, with theChinese kanji from which it was derived. He relates a concise history of Japanese writing, and provides the reader with charts of the Japanese and Chinese numbers,the hiragana and katakana contractions, and the keys or radicals that make up the Japanese kanji. A comprehensive guide to all of the characters of the Japanese alphabet, this is an ideal primer for the beginner, as well as a convenient reference for a more advanced student. Joining Abbeville's Chinese Calligraphy, Maya Script,and Arabic Script, Japanese Alphabet is an exhaustive compendium of the Japanese writing system and indispensable addition to any Japanese linguist's library.

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About the Author:

Gabriele Mandel is a university instructor, painter, writer, and psychologist. He is the author of several books, including Abbeville's Arabic Script. As a student, he received a scholarship for Japanese language at the University of Milan. Currently, he is the director of the psychology department at the European University of Brussels.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION
Origins and development of Chinese writing


Humanity has always been dominated by symbols. A word is a symbol, and every writing system involves symbols. Concepts from the simple to the complex&are symbols, as are all the signs, actions, and rites that compose the tangible manifestations of reality and its abstract essence. For some populations a certain category of symbols, writing, is not only the systematic presentation of oral sounds but is also an artistic expression with a spiritual value that extends beyond the phonemes expressed to achieve artistic-emblematic values fully perceptible by those who have been instructed in these refined and sensitive arts.

The Japanese writing system is one of these, and it is considered special and unique because it unites two different cultures (the Chinese and the Japanese) and two methods of writing in clear opposition to each other: the ideographic and the alphabetic. It has been established that Japan’s two phonetic alphabets originated from Chinese pictograms. It is also true that these alphabets were not often used on their own and instead were usually used together with Chinese ideograms that were read, however, in the Japanese language. It is thus necessary to first analyze Chinese writing and to trace its history. Only then can we turn to the study of Japan during the great epochs and experience the adventure of its alphabets as an exciting and unique historical event, blending art forms, religious culture, and mystical aspirations. Most of all, we must remember that for both the Chinese and the Japanese cultures the long tradition of writing was understood primarily as a spiritual art, a do: a means of achieving self-discovery and individual perfection.

The pictograph system (drawing a picture of an object rather than expressing it in alphabetic symbols) is doubtless the oldest writing system for many cultures. It was most probably based on symbols dating to the Paleolithic period that were later codified in a more refined way during that part of the Neolithic period in which human being represented objects and animals figuratively, before evolving to the later abstract-symbolic phase. Thus we must go back at least thirty thousand years. The pictographic system dates back to at least 3200 BC in various cultures; in Egypt, which by that time had developed a monarchic state; in Mesopotamia, among the Sumerians, a people perhaps of the Mongoloid race; in the pre-Columbian culture, although the dating there is uncertain because of the destruction carried out by the conquistadores; and, of course, in China. In China, beautiful writing, which originated from the perfect delineation of the painted object, was associated with a sense of art and with literary expression, leading to a calligraphic art emblematic of China’s great culture.

Pictograms depicted objects, and ideograms represented ideas and concepts; the fusion of the two methods of writing led to semantemes, the linguistic word for basic units of meaning. The oldest known semantemes (called jiaguwen; in Japanese, kokotsubun) a relatively evolved form of hieroglyphics date to the second half of the Shang dynasty (from the seventeenth century BC to 1050 25 BC), by which time they were already well-formulated, indicating they were derived from even older forms, unknown and untraceable. With the passage of time, the jiaguwen phonemes came to be read as sounds and were no longer merely depictions of objects. As such they were the basis for the ideographic characters of the two Han dynasties (206 VC AD 220), on which the ideograms still in use today were based.

The earliest surviving jiaguwen are divinations inscribed on turtleshell and ox bones (thus known as oracle-bone script) that were discovered near the end of the nineteenth century in the northern Henan province at Anyang, site of the ancient capital of the Shang dynasty from 1300 to 1028 BC. Also found on this site were splendid ritual bronzes (first phase: 1300 900 BC; second phase: 900 600 BC), all of which bear engraved or as part of the cast vessel texts written using a few characters (about two hundred graphemes). These are dedicatory texts, and they present an already well evolved form. Without doubt, some of these graphemes were being read for their figurative value and others for their phonetic value.

In the evolved ideographic writing system, each individual grapheme can be read” in various ways or values”: as a pictogram, ideogram, semanteme, phoneme, but also by way of a variety of mixtures and different uses of these values. Thus the first group of Chinese graphemes evolved into the later, increasingly codified characters known as the liu-shu ( six scripts”). Every one of these characters includes three elements: form, sound, and meaning. According to their individual pictographic or ideographic values, these six scripts or categories are 1) hsiang (or hsiang hsing): pictographic representation; 2) chih shih: ideographic renderings of abstract ideas; 3) hui yi (indicatives): combinations of characters based on associations of ideas; 4) chaun chu (deflection and inversion): indications by generalized analogy; 5) chia chieh (loan references): a character used for its phonetic value to represent a homophone with a different meaning; 6) hsing sheng: composites of phonetic characters with pictorial elements, usually 7,697 in all, that constitute the most important class of Chinese writing.

The characters used in oracle-bone inscriptions were soon being used in dedicatory inscriptions on ritual bronzeware (jinwen, script on metal”), numerous examples of which survive dating to the period of the Western Zhou (c. 1050&ndash771 BC). The characters were evolving rapidly during this period and gave origin to two types of classical writing, the jinwen of the Eastern Zhou (770 256 BC) and the jinwen of the Spring and Autumn Annals (722 481 BC). So-called seal script also came into existence (zhuanshu; in Japanese, tensho), divided into small seal script (xiao zhuan; in Japanese, shoten) and large seal script (da zhuan; in Japanese daiten), written on strips of bamboo strung together side by side. These were first inscribed and then (475 221 BC) painted using a brush composed of goat or rabbit hairs fixed to the end of a bamboo holder. During the same period the custom began or writing on fabrics, in particular silk.

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