Katakana is one of the two Japanese 'syllabaries', the writing systems used to represent the sounds of Japanese syllables. (The other is hiragana.) Katakana symbols are used to spell out words phonetically, especially non-Japanese terms.
The term katakana is usually written in katakana - as カタカナ, but it originally comes from 片仮名, which means 'fragmentary kana' - most of the characters are fragments of more complex kanji with the same reading.
If you are just starting out with your Japanese studies, learning katakana 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 katakana 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 katakana symbols they appear after.
When ゛is displayed after another katakana 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 カ (ka) becomes the voiced sound ガ (ga).
When ゜is displayed after a katakana symbol, it changes the sound to a 'p' sound, so for example, ハ (ha) becomes パ (pa).
Yōon and sokuon
The basic katakana can be modified in a couple more ways. Katakana 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, キ (ki) plus ヤ (ya) would become キャ (kya). This type of modification is known as 'yōon'.
Finally, a small tsu (ッ) can be used between two katakana to double the second consonant. For example, サッカ is read as 'sakka' (author). This is known as a 'sokuon'.