Hiragana is one of the two Japanese 'syllabaries', the writing systems used to represent the sounds of Japanese syllables. (The other is katakana.) Hiragana symbols are used in all Japanese sentences to represent grammatical constructions such as verb endings and particles, as well as for words for which there are no kanji or less common kanji.
If you are just starting out with your Japanese studies, learning hiragana is one of the most useful first steps you can take. For more information on how to go about learning written Japanese, see our detailed guide, How to master the kanji.
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The basic hiragana chart is as follows.
Dakuten and handakuten
The 'dakuten' symbol ( ゛) and the 'handakuten' symbol ( ゜) are not used on their own - they are used to modify the hiragana symbols they appear after.
When ゛is displayed after another hiragana symbol, it indicates that the symbol should be 'voiced'. 'Voicing' is a linguistic term for a sound that makes the vocal cords vibrate - as opposed to just emanating from the mouth. In Japanese, this means that the sound of a consonant moves further down your throat. So, for example, the unvoiced sound か (ka) becomes the voiced sound が (ga).
When ゜is displayed after a hiragana symbol, it changes the sound to a 'p' sound, so for example, は (ha) becomes ぱ (pa).
Yōon and sokuon
The basic hiragana can be modified in a couple more ways. Hiragana ending in 'i' can be followed by a small ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ), which elides the sounds of the two characters. For example, き (ki) plus や (ya) would become きゃ (kya). This type of modification is known as 'yōon'.
Finally, a small っ can be used between two hiragana to double the second consonant. For example, いって is read as 'itte'. This is known as a 'sokuon'.
When hiragana symbols are used to inflect kanji-based words, they are known as 'okurigana'. For example, in the word 高い (たかい, high / expensive), the い is an okurigana.
Hiragana symbols are also written above (or beside) kanji to indicate their pronunciation, especially names, in which case they are known as 'furigana'. For example, the surname たなか, Tanaka, could be written like this, using furigana: