How can you tell when words end and begin in a Japanese sentence?

by Anonymous

When looking at a sentence consisting of Japanese characters, how can you tell when words end and begin? In English each word is seperated, while in Japanese they all run together.

Usually I can't tell if the character I'm reading is at the beginning, middle or end of a word. I've tried finding solutions that can help but haven't been successful.



Hi, there are mainly 3 types of characters in Japanese, hiragana, katakana and kanji, excluding romaji which is the roman characters used to help foreigners for pronunciation.

A Japanese word can be made up of hiragana, katakana, kanji, or a combination of kanji and hiragana. For example, this Japanese word 飲む (nomu), which mean "to drink", is made up of a kanji 飲 (no) and a hiragana character む (mu).

On the other hand, the kanji 飲 (no) can also be represented by the hiragana character の (no), which is the pronunciation of the kanji 飲 in hiragana. So you can also use のむ (nomu) to represent "to drink".

As such, it's possible to write the whole sentence consisting of only hiragana characters. However, this will make the sentence difficult to read because many kanji are pronounced with not only one but few hiragana characters.

Japanese words can also be formed with katakana, which are mainly used to express foreign words, foreign places, foreign countries, foreign names, things "loaned" from foreign languages. For example, this Japanese word レストラン (resutoran) came from the English word "restaurant".

In order to know how Japanese words are formed, you need to have a basic understanding of the above 3 Japanese characters. You can go to the following pages to find out more on each character...

1. Japanese Hiragana
2. Japanese Katakana
3. Japanese Kanji

You may also want to refer to this page where there are many Japanese words and vocabulary available. You can then see how different combinations of Japanese words are formed.

I am not very sure why you cannot tell when words end and begin in a sentence consisting of Japanese characters. If you understand how Japanese words are formed (as explained above), you shouldn't have any problem with that.

The only problem I can guess is that you may be confused about kanji, because a kanji can be formed with few kanji. For example this kanji 飲 (no) is made up of 2 kanji 食 and 欠. While kanji are more complicated as compared to hiragana and katakana, the theory is the same behind how Japanese words are formed.

I hope I have not confused you further in my explanation. Let me you if you need more help. Or you can give some examples to show your problem.

Hope this helps,
Kia Leng

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Some more help
by: Anonymous

I think the person is more confused because you kind of have to guess with Japanese, unless you are completely fluent and know every kanji and every word combination possible. I know hiragana, katakana and only a few kanji, so I can't read japanese sentences with kanji in them unless they are ones I know. Which right now is not many, but I can recognize what the hiragana and katakana spell out, at least.

A helpful hint to be able to tell where words end is to always remember that hiragana are always used for particles! This is the big tip. Kanji are usually used for entire words, sometimes you'll have two kanji for two words, or a combination for one long word, next to eachother, but if you have to change the ending of the word, like to change tense or politeness, you use hiragana as well. So hiragana is either used to tag on to the end of a kanji word, or to form a separate word as a particle (usually as a connecting word for the words around it).

Let me try to think of an easy one to show you what I mean...

genki desu.
"gen", "ki", and then "desu" is in hiragana. desu is always in hiragana.
Same goes for the particles "no" (denoting possession), "to" (and), ect.

Hope this is a bit more helpful.

Some more help
by: Kia Leng

Thanks for the additional explanation. I hope it helps to clear the doubts of those who are confused about when words end and begin in a Japanese sentence.

I have the same issue
by: Anonymous

How do you tell where each of these end?
郵便局 - post-office - yuubinkyoku
郵便 - post - yuubin
The second one is obvious, but the first one is not unless you know the word post-office.

How about this one?
最高制限速度 - saikou seigen sokudo
制限速度 - seigen sokudo
速度 - sokudo

I have the same issue
by: Kia Leng


I would suggest you don't learn kanji the same way that you learn English. They're actually quite different, especially in terms of how words are formed.

There're only 26 letters in English and every single word is formed by a letter, or a combination of few letters.

However, kanji is different. Each kanji is standalone as a word, and few kanji can be combined to form another word. And there're about 2000 commonly used kanji or 常用漢字 (jouyou kanji) you need to master in order to reach the level of high school standard of the native Japanese.

It's not easy to master all the 2000 kanji in a short term. It takes years to master them. You cannot expect to master them in a year what it takes native Japanese around 10 years to do that.

So back to your questions:
郵便 (yuubin - post/mail) is a word by itself (2 kanji). 郵便局 (yuubinkyoku - post office) is another word formed by 3 kanji.

The other 3 words are similar. 速度 (sokudo - speed) is a word formed by 2 kanji. 制限速度 (seigen sokudo - speed limit) is another word formed by 4 kanji. 最高制限速度 (saikou seigen sokudo - maximum speed limit) is yet another word formed by 6 kanji.

You asked "How do you tell where each of these end?" My answer is that you need to know every single word that formed by the various kanji. Then naturally you'll know where each word ends. That means besides knowing 郵便 (yuubin - post/mail) as a word, you also need to know 郵便局 (yuubinkyoku - post office) as another standalone word.

I know this is definitely a challenge for a beginner, especially if s/he's entirely new to kanji. But there're no short cut in learning kanji.

My suggestion is to learn kanji as they appear in your textbooks as you begin learning the Japanese language. In this way you can pick up and memorize words formed by different kanji more effectively because you can relate to the whole sentence.

After learning for a period of time, I believe you'll be able to recognize more words (formed by different kanji) and naturally know where each word ends.

Hope this helps,
Kia Leng

by: Anonymous

Just to point out a little mistake in the original post which may confuse beginners -

"can also be represented by the hiragana character む (no), "

You have the wrong Hiragana there, as typed in your next sentence it is の.

by: Kia Leng

Hi, I have corrected it. That's the problem of using too many "copy and paste". I was also too careless for not checking it thoroughly. Thanks for pointing out the mistake.

Flashcards for learning Japanese.
by: Anonymous

If you use pictographic flashcards you can learn to read and write hiragana and katakana in about a month.
Learning the 2000 kanji that are required to read any newspaper in Japanese takes about a year. Learning how to write 2000 kanji I haven't done yet. However I can write hiragana and katakana. Getting the stroke order correct for all of the above I think it would take a lifetime. Learning to read, write, form correct grammar, and vocabulary probably takes 10 years.
You can do it.

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