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How Kanji Were Formed

Three types of character are used to write Japanese. Although Japanese is a completely different language from Chinese, the characters used to write Japanese originally came from ancient China, where they are said to have been created thousands of years ago. These characters are called kanji and began as pictures. Over time the pictures changed, and most kanji no longer look like the original objects; they now stand for words or parts of words. There are about 2,000 kanji in regular use. Children learn around 1,000 kanji in elementary school and another 1,000 in middle school.

In addition to kanji, Japanese has two sets of phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana, both developed from kanji. Each set has 46 characters, which stand for syllables (usually including a consonant and a vowel, like "ka"). Combined with specific extra dots used to mark changes of the original sounds, these characters are enough to express all the sounds of modern Japanese. Hiragana are used together with kanji to write ordinary Japanese words. Katakana are used to write words introduced from other languages, names of foreign people and places, sounds, and animal cries.

Japanese has many local dialects, called hogen. Different dialects have different words for the same things; there are also variations in accent and intonation, as well as in the endings attached to verbs and adjectives. Using the widely accepted standard spoken Japanese, however, people from different regions can communicate easily.

Chart of Hiragana and Katakana Characters