Though I’ve known both of the Japanese syllabaries – hiragana and katakana – for a while, I have trouble remembering the order of them. There are 46 of each – the sound is parallel but the writing is different – and there is no convenient “ABC” song to put them in line.
Basically, there are five vowel sounds – but where we’d put them in alphabetical order – AEIOU – Japan has them AIUEO. The sound is also different – ah, ee, oo, eh, oh. There is also one sound that is just the consonant – N. Other than that, though, every character in Japanese is a consonant-vowel pair. Add the vowels respectively to nine consonants – KSTNHMYRW – and you’ve got the system. With a few variations – T + I is pronounced chi, not ti, there is no yi or ye, etc.
Much like the alphabet, you don’t need to know the syllabary order for most daily activities. But it comes in handy in many ways – class attendance lists the students by it, print dictionaries follow it, and – relevant to my interests – bookstores are ordered by it. At first I would go into the bookstore, find the vague section I wanted – I can usually read the kanji for novel, or the katakana “fantajii.“ But after that it became a tiresome process of running a finger up and down the shelves, comparing the kanji on the spines to the author’s name I was searching for.
But then I figured there was method to the madness. First comes the vowels – names like Aoki, Ishiyama, Ueda, Endou, Ogawa. Then the same pattern in the Ks – Kawaguchi, Kinoshita, etc. All I had to do was memorize the pattern and I could find anything. For the life of me I couldn’t – 26 letters is one thing, 46 is another. But it couldn’t be that difficult – I already knew the vowels, to the point sometimes I couldn’t remember if the alphabet didn’t also go AIUEO. All I needed was to remember the consonants and I’d have it made. What I needed was a mnemonic.
It is harder to create an interesting, memorable mnemonic that I thought. I bow to the creators of “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sat Under New Pines” which will forever live in my head even though there are no more pines. After much scribbling and crossing out on a notepad, I finally came up with “As King Solomon Taught, No Human May Yet Reach Wisdom.” No, I’m not sure what it means – but I can remember it. Then I can just stick the lonely N at the end – it couldn’t be part of the mnemonic as it can’t start a word, but it’s unique enough to be memorable on its own, so it shall serve as a period.