Thursday, October 05, 2006

Alphabetti: I No Getti Yetti

Whilst in a spaghetti restaurant a few days ago, I realised that I really should make the effort to improve my Japanese.

I was poring through the menu, or rather looking at the pictures, when I realised I had actually managed to decipher one of the dishes. Namely, Spaghetti Meat Sauce with Cheese - Spag Bol to you and I.

I was inspired to push on.

What made this possible was Katakana. A quick explanation which I’ll try to make as absorbing as I can:

There are three alphabets in Japanese. The first is Kanji. Kanji borrows heavily from Chinese, has maybe 12,000 characters and is based on pictograms ie the character for river (kawa) looks (supposedly) like a river.

Since, in reality, the pictures bear little resemblance to word, this means you either know it, or you don’t. Place names are usually in Kanji, as are words or concepts which are age-old eg heart, tree, book, meat and the points of the compass.

This is “book” or “hon”.

The second is Hiragana. This alphabet is used mainly to write words of Japanese origin: sushi, karate, teriyaki. It uses lots of curvy lines and sweeping strokes.

This is the Hiragana character “meh”. It reminds of a pretzel.

The last is Katakana and thank God for this alphabet. It is a relatively recent invention and is used to spell out words new to the language eg Wesley Snipes, Belgium and Chicken McNuggets.

I’d love to see a pictogram for that last one. I’d also like to know of any other blog that has a sentence containing Wesley Snipes, Belgium and Chicken McNuggets.

The thing about Katakana is it’s phonetic. Learn the sounds for the symbol, read it out loud, and you’ve probably come reasonably close to saying the word.

For example:

Initially, when you look at a label such as this, you are dumbfounded.

But break it down into the sounds and you get this

Chi-Yor-Kor-Pah-Eee. Or Choco Pie.

These babies.

OK so the label is in English. And there’s a picture on the box, as well. But you get the point.

Mmm......yum yum.

Still there’s a long way to go, so I’m going to keep practising.


Paul in Latvia said...

Those Choco-Pie things seem to be almost everywhere; never seen them in the UK (perhaps I havent noticed) but they've showed up everywhere from Vetnam to Russia.

Oreo biscuits on the other hand, were around from Singapore but seemed to disappear after I left Japan.

giacomo said...

Godzilla probably ate them.