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Grammar detail: ひらがな and かたかな

ひらがな and かたかな - Hiragana and katakana, the two Japanese syllabaries
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Hiragana (usually written ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) are the two Japanese 'syllabaries'. In other words, each of them contains characters which represent every syllable used in the Japanese language, so each of them can be used to write any word in Japanese. In practice, however, they have different purposes.
They are called syllabaries because each symbol maps to a specific syllable, and each syllable in Japanese is represented by just one symbol. In contrast an alphabet is used to represent 'phonemes' - individual sounds - so multiple symbols are required to describe a syllable, and (as with the English alphabet), often the same sound can be written in different ways. So a syllabary is actually in some ways more precise and logical than an alphabet - this is one of many interesting ways in which Japanese differs from English!
The kana are distinct from kanji, the typically more complex characters that represent specific concepts. Although kana descended from kanji, they no longer carry the associated meanings.
Hiragana is typically used for sentence grammar (particles, verb endings etc), whereas katakana is typically used to represent 'loanwords' (words that have been introduced to Japanese from other languages).
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