The gojūon (五十音?, lit. "fifty sounds") is a Japanese ordering of kana, so it is loosely a Japanese "alphabetical order". The "fifty" (gojū) in its name refers to the 5×10 grid in which the characters are displayed. Each kana, which may be a hiragana or katakana character, corresponds to one sound in the Japanese language. As depicted at the right using hiragana characters, the sequence begins with あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), お (o), then continues with か (ka), き (ki), く (ku), け (ke), こ (ko), and so on for a total of ten rows of five.
Although nominally containing 50 characters, the grid is not completely filled, and, further, there is an extra character added outside the grid at the end: with 5 gaps and 1 extra character, the current number of distinct kana in a syllabic chart in modern Japanese is therefore 46. Some of these gaps have always existed as gaps in sound: there was no yi or wu in Old Japanese, and ye disappeared in Late Old Japanese, predating the kana; the kana for i, u and e double up for those phantom values. Also, with the spelling reforms after World War II, the kana for wi and we were replaced with i and e, the sounds they had developed into. The kana for syllabic n (hiragana ん) is not part of the grid, as it was introduced long after gojūon ordering was devised. (Previously mu (hiragana む), was used for this sound).
The gojūon contains all the basic kana, but it does not include:
- versions of kana with a dakuten such as が (ga) or だ (da), or kana with handakuten such as ぱ (pa) or ぷ (pu),
- smaller kana, such as the sokuon (っ) or yōon (ゃ,ゅ,ょ).
The gojūon order is the prevalent system for collating Japanese in Japan. For example, dictionaries are ordered using this method. Other systems used are the iroha ordering, and, for kanji, the radical ordering.
The monk Kūkai introduced the Siddhaṃ script, which being a Brahmic script used the Sanskrit ordering of letters, to Japan in 806 on his return from China. Buddhist monks who invented katakana chose to use the word order of Sanskrit and Siddham, since important Buddhist writings were written with those alphabets.
In an unusual set of events, although it uses Sanskrit organization (grid, with order of consonants and vowels), it also uses the Chinese order of writing (in columns, right-to-left).
The order of consonants and vowels, and the grid layout, originates in Sanskrit shiksha (śikṣā, Hindu phonetics and phonology), and Brāhmī script, as reflected throughout the Brahmic family of scripts.
The Sanskrit was written left-to-right, with vowels changing in rows, not columns; writing the grid vertically follows Chinese writing convention.
There are three ways in which the grid does not exactly accord with Sanskrit ordering of Modern Japanese; that is because the grid is based on Old Japanese, and some sounds have changed in the interim.
What is now s/さ was previously pronounced [ts], hence its location; in Sanskrit /s/ is near the end of the list.
Kana starting with h (eg は), b (eg ば) and p (eg ぱ) are placed where p/b are in Sanskrit (in Sanskrit, h is at the end) and the diacritics do not follow the usual pattern: p/b (as in Sanskrit) is the usual unvoiced/voiced pattern, and [h] has different articulation.
This is because /h/ was previously [p], and pronouncing /h/ as [h] is recent. (More detail at Old Japanese: /h/; in brief: prior to Old Japanese, modern /h/ was presumably [p], as in Ryukyuan languages. Proto-Japanese is believed to have split into Old Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages in the Yamato period (250–710). In Old Japanese (from 9th century) and on to the 17th century, /h/ was pronounced [ɸ]. The earliest evidence was from 842, by the monk Ennin, writing in the Zaitōki that Sanskrit /p/ is more labial than Japanese. The Portuguese later transcribed the は-row as fa/fi/fu/fe/fo.)
Syllable-final n (ん) was not present in Old Japanese (it developed following Chinese borrowings), does not fit with other characters, and thus is attached at the end of the grid, as in Sanskrit treatment of miscellaneous characters.
The earliest example of a gojūon-style layout dates from a manuscript known as Kujakukyō Ongi (孔雀経音義?) dated c. 1004–1028. In contrast, the earliest example of the alternative iroha ordering is from the 1079 text Konkōmyō Saishōōkyō Ongi (金光明最勝王経音義?).
Today the gojūon system forms the basis of input methods for Japanese mobile phones – each key corresponds to a column in the gojūon, while the number of presses determines the row. For example, the '2' button corresponds to the ka-column (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko), and the button is pressed repeatedly to get the intended kana.
This table uses the vertical system of Japanese writing, and should be read from the top down, starting from the rightmost column, then to the left. In each entry, the top entry is the hiragana, the second entry is the corresponding katakana, the third entry is the Hepburn romanization of the kana, and the fourth entry is the pronunciation written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Please see Japanese phonology for more details on the individual sounds.
The rows are referred to as dan (段?), and the columns as gyō (行?). They are named for their first entry, thus the rows are あ段 い段 う段 え段 お段 while the columns are (in left-to-right order) わ行 ら行 や行 ま行 は行 な行 た行 さ行 か行 あ行. These are sometimes written in katakana, such as ア行, and conspicuously used when referring to Japanese verb conjugation – for example, the verb yomu (読む?, "read") is of ma-gyō go-dan katsuyō (マ行五段活用?, "ma-column 5-class conjugation") type.
Ordering of variant kana
In the ordering based on the gojūon, smaller versions of kana are treated in the same way as full-size versions:
- The sokuon, the small kana tsu, is ordered at the same position as the large tsu. When the words are otherwise identical, it goes after them. For example,
- まつ, まったく, まつば, まとう (matsu, mattaku, matsuba, matou)
- Yōon sounds are ordered in the same positions as the full-sized sounds. When the words are otherwise identical, they collate after them. For example,
- きや, きゃ, きやく, きゃく, きゆ (kiya, kya, kiyaku, kyaku, kiyu).
Voiced versions (those with a dakuten) are classified under their unvoiced versions; If the words are otherwise identical, the voiced version is placed after the unvoiced; handakuten are placed after dakuten. For example,
- すず, すすいろ, すすき, すずき, すずしい, すすむ (suzu, susuiro, susuki, suzuki, suzushii, susumu).
- は, ば, ぱ (ha, ba, pa)
In order to remember the gojūon, various mnemonics have been devised. For example,
- Ah, Kana Symbols: Take Note How Many You Read Well.
- Ah, Kana. Surely Take Note How Many You Read Well.
- Kana Signs, Think Now How Much You Really Want (to learn them).
- A Kind Samurai Told Naomi How My Yak Ran Wild.
The first letters in these phrases give the ordering of the non-voiced initial sounds.
For vowel ordering, the vowel sounds in the following English phrase may be used as a mnemonic:
- Ah, we soon get old.
The vowel sounds in the English words approximate the Japanese vowels: a, i, u, e, o.
One can also use
- HAIL UNESCO
to remember the order of the vowels.
- Japanese katakana (Omniglot.com)
- Daniels & Bright, The World's Writing Systems
- Miller, Roy Andrew The Japanese Language, ISBN 4-8053-0460-X, p. 128: "The Indic order of listing phonemes as found in the arrangement of this so-called 'siddhāṃ' script, as well as in all the Indic writing systems, arranges the consonants in the following order: k, kh, g, gh, ñ, c, ch, j, jh, ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, t, th, d, dh, p, ph, b, bh, m, y, r, l, v, ś, ṣ, s, and ḥ ... Here the juxtaposition of modern 'h', Old Japanese 'F', with Indic 'p' is interesting and significant; the only other point which needs particular comment is the location of modern Japanese 's' following 'k'. This is easily understood since modern Japanese 's' goes back to the Old Japanese affricate phoneme /ts/ which had an allophone [ts] before Old Japanese /a, u, o, ö/ and an allophone [s] before /i, e/."
- 1.1.5. What is the origin of the gojuuon kana ordering?, sci.lang.japan FAQ
- Mabuchi (1993: 169-174)
- Kubota (2007: 26)
- Kubota, Jun (2007). Iwanami Nihon Koten Bungaku Jiten (in Japanese). Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 978-4-00-080310-6.
- Hanzawa, Kan'ichi; Abe, Kiyosuke; Ono, Masahiro; et al., eds. (2002). "Gojūonzu". Case Study: Nihongo no Rekishi (in Japanese). Ofū. p. 6-11. ISBN 978-4-273-03267-8.
- Mabuchi, Kazuo (1993). Gojūonzu no Hanashi (in Japanese). Taishūkan Shoten. ISBN 4-469-22093-0.
- "The Japanese language", Roy Andrew Miller, ISBN 0-226-52718-2, describes the origin of gojūon in Sanskrit.
- Gendai Kokugo Reikai Jiten, ISBN 4-09-501042-8, used to obtain examples of dictionary ordering.
- sci.lang.japan FAQ on the origin of kana order contains the relevant quote from the above reference.
- Kana Table (PDF)