Here is an excellent question from a user of our Japanese Phrases iPhone app:
Through your amazing app JPhrases have I been able to learn Hiragana. Thank you for that. Yesterday, however, I started with Katakana and a question instantly arose and I was wondering if you could please help me understand this better.
With the Katakana character for 'a', the same vocabulary word was presented as in Hiragana: 'aa', meaning 'ah!'. However, the other 4 characters from chapter one only had examples that said 'sounds like eye', for example.
My question here is actually two-fold. First: does it matter if 'aa' is written in Hiragana or Katakana and if not, do the Japanese prefer either one or the other, or is it context-bound (sorry if this word does not exist, I'm Dutch. I don't know everything)? And two: are there no specific words to learn for Katakana? Or at least not for the first chapter? How does knowing what the words sound like help? Is that because the Japanese write 'ai' in Hiragana for 'love' and in Katakana for the English word 'eye'? I don't exactly understand how I should interpret this in the app.
I hope my question is clear with this. If not, please let me know and I will try to elaborate. If you can help me understand this better, then I would greatly appreciate it!
Thank you very much in advance,
You ask a very good question.
For the app, the short answer is, limiting the choice of example words to only a-i-u-e-o makes finding purely katakana words difficult. You’ll see better examples as you go on and the number of katakana increases.
The real question, however, is where the boundary between hiragana and katakana lies.
As a general rule, hiragana is used for words (when there is no kanji or what follows after kanji like 新しい atara(shii) (new)) and grammatical particles like が ga (usually marks the subject) or は wa (topic marker). Katakana is mainly used for foreign language words, loan words, onomatopoeia, or sometimes just for emphasis like ガンバレ ganbare (you can do it!) which is normally written in hiragana or kanji.
The tricky thing is, sometimes there is overlap. Sometimes the choice of hiragana or katakana is purely stylistic. I think this is especially true with onomatopoeia or interjections like ああ！ Aa! (Ah!)
But the general rule usually holds true. Unless it is a foreign word or name, it probably will be written in hiragana. You are right “ai” (love) is usually written in hiragana because it is a Japanese word and the English word “eye” is written in Katakana because it is a foreign loanword.
Here is the iPhone app he is using:
2,700 sound files and hundreds of added lessons on grammar, kana, and kanji.
Normally, it sells for $9.99, but for a limited time, it is only $4.99.