Hiragana and katakana contain the same sounds (morae I think), but are typically used in different words. In particular, most European loan words use katakana (a few don't), and a large proportion of katakana involves European loan words (though it is used for other purposes as well).

English has upper case and lowercase, and also can have print versus cursive, but specific words aren't strongly associated with case or whether or not it is cursive.

Do any other languages have an equivalent to hiragana and katakana?

  • Georgian also has three distinct scripts. However, they are rarely used together in the same document. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 23:13
  • Serbian is written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, but neither script is used for specific circumstances like Kana. The circumstantial usage of the two types of Kana seems to be unique.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 12:33
  • 2
    The use katakana vaguely resembles the use of italics in English and several other languages that use Latin script. English is nowhere near as consistent as Japanese, but some words or phrases of foreign origin are in fact strongly associated with italics, at least according to some manuals of style: a priori, laissez-faire, Zeitgeist and so on.
    – michau
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 16:57

5 Answers 5


Yes, arguably most non-Latin scripts do use a separate alphabet for specific purposes, namely Latin for many foreign words from languages that use the Latin alphabet.

That is, in a block of non-Latin-script text one can find words like YouTube. Some language standards have prescriptions against it, for example in Serbian one should write Jutub even in Latin, but in the real world it is happening in practically every language to some degree. It is most common for company names and product names, whereas person names and place names are nearly always transliterated.

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I count iOS, WADA, Huffington Post...

(In contrast, Le Monde or The New York Times will never ever use a Cyrillic, Arabic or Chinese character for a company name. Arguably most non-Latin scripts do use Latin in this way, that is, they would throw in a word like YouTube whereas the NYTimes will never ever ever use a Cyrillic, Arabic or Chinese character. Nil passive knowledge of other alphabets is assumed in any context, they are strictly esoteric. The exception would be the Greek letters for maths. Generally even identifying other alphabets is not required, and plenty of Cyrillic is even pseudo-Cyrillic.)

Moreover product codes, URLs, hashtags, email adresses, computer code, keypads, for example building door codes, units, licence plates, stock market tickers are in Latin and rarely in, say, Georgian. The IPA is also in Latin. The larger languages, like Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, can shield some of their speakers from this a bit more, but not completely. As a consequence, standards for how to say the letters of the Latin alphabet have often evolved in each language, for example 'y' in the Russophone world is ígrek, from French.

It is also worth mentioning that many languages have multiple scripts and historically there were other combinations. Georgian has three, one is used more now, but one of the others can be used for titles, a bit like uppercasing or italics. A large portion of German was previously written in Fraktur, and before the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute Antiqua was often used for a few bits, eg Latin titles and Roman numerals, Antiqua being associated with Latin culture and Catholicism, in works that were otherwise in Fraktur. Today Fraktur is still used internationally in mathematics.

  • +1 It's the case for a lot of languages. However, Japanese seems to be an exception. The knowledge of the Latin alphabet is not assumed, so ads often contain search terms to find a particular website rather than its URL.
    – michau
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 11:50
  • Japanese is always the exception, right? :-) (English and Latin script too of course.) I looked at asahi.com and there is still more Latin, eg NASA, using those special Unicode chars for Japanese Latin. That is, yet another script! By the way, non-ASCII URLs are supported, although the protocol (eg https:// is still in Latin). Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:27
  • 1
    Just a nitpick: ígrek, not igrék. It doesn't follow the French stress pattern. Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 15:16
  • Interesting, the dictionary confirms what you say. (The problem is that I have learnt spoken Russian mostly from Armenians -- I have just re-confirmed that they say igrék -- and I assumed it was just Russian.) Thanks, edited. Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 15:17

Historically, Korean writers have used two scripts alongside each other: a phonemic alphabet arranged in syllabic blocks (hangŭl) and sinographic characters (漢字, called hanja in Korean). Hanja are not really parallel to katakana, though. They are more the equivalent of Japanese kanji, but much less commonly used (although students may still study them in school, the use of hanja in actual written Korean texts has greatly declined over time). Apparently, hanja are not used at all in North Korea.

  • AFAIK back in 2004 or thereabouts Korea passed a law to use hangŭl in every place and disallow students use hanja in their exams or something, which sparked some debate. That was about the same time they decided to change the name of nowadays Seoul, all to get rid of more Chinese vestige in their culture. That largely contributed to the decline of hanja.
    – xji
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 17:41

The traditional (now virtually extinct) system of writing Vietnamese was to write the Chinese loanwords with Chinese characters (chữ nho), and the native words with specially invented Vietnamese characters (chữ nôm).

  • +1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be quiet widespread in the region. Kanji comes to mind as another example.
    – alephreish
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 9:37

Not sure if that would fit in your requirement, but Yiddish is a very good example of how two different writing systems can coexist:

Modern Yiddish is in general written more or less phonetically, at least with a full set of vowel symbols, much like other European languages. Nevertheless, somewhat between 5 and 15% of the Yiddish lexicon is of Hebrew or Aramaic (HA) origin (including Yiddish Semitic neologisms), and these words are written the "traditional" way, as written in the Torah or Rabbinical literature, i.e. consonantally with occasional use of matres lectionis. Besides that, although both systems utilize the same alphabet and are normally typed in the same font, some letters appear to have different phonetic roles in them:

  • ב is consistently [b], but in HA words also [v]
  • being generally a full consonant, [h], ה in Semitic words is more often used as one of the matres lectionis and is normally reduced to [ə] when used as such
  • letters ח and ת in modern orthographies are used only for the HA vocabulary
  • כ always denotes phoneme [x] in the general writing, but in words of Semitic origin it can also correspond to [k]
  • ע is generally a vowel sign with a value of [ɛ], [ə] or [ej] (~ context/dialect), but in HA words it serves as a no-longer pronounced consonant symbol and is vocalized with different vowels
  • ף/פ and פּ can appear anywhere in a word of non-HA origin, yet you wouldn't meet a HA-word with פ in the beginning or with פּ in the end
  • ש is generally [ʃ], but in some rare HA words also [s]

(In some orthographies some of the above distinctions are even specially marked with extra diacritical marks).

Now, there are spheres in which both systems interdigitate: for example, the vast majority of affixes are written phonetically even when attached to words of HA origin. The systems are sometimes separated when they meet in the same written word, with the symbol ׳, e.g.: אונטער׳גנב׳ענען זיך

Examples (HA-words in bold):

  • ריינע כשרע נשמות פליען אַרויף אויפן הימל, רוען אין ליכטיגן גן⸗עדן... (from The Dybbuk)
  • איין מלאך טוט ניט קיין צוויי שליחות, און ניט צוויי מלאכים איין שליחות. (from Di Idishe Agodes)

Occasionally the writing systems swap over:

  • female agentive suffix ׳טע (originally from Aramaic ׳תא) is written phonetically
  • אַ(ר)־, one of the most productive prefixes, has polyphyletic origin and is nearly always written phonetically even when of HA origin: אַכלל, אַפילו
  • such originally Semitic-origin words as שעכטן, מעקן, קאַטאָוועס, sometimes באַלעבאָס are exceptionally written phonetically
  • many hypocoristic personal names of Semitic origin lost their connection to the source and are written phonetically
  • many words (including personal names) of Greek origin entered Yiddish through Aramaic or Rabbinic Hebrew and are naturally written consonantally
  • in very rare cases even non-Greek words are written consonantally: חוזק (of German stock), קונדס (< Polish)
  • 3
    I do not think this is a good parallel. The point about hiragana and katakana is that they are two totally different alphabets. Yiddish uses the same (Hebrew) alphabet for writing both the Germanic and the Hebrew words.
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 9:04
  • @fdb Well, it's a parallel in terms of having coexisting writing systems systematically used for different words, which what the spirit of the question is about. The same alphabet is used in this case in different ways and some letters are restricted to HA elements only. And after all hiragana and katakana also had a common ancestor.
    – alephreish
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 9:29
  • 1
    I see this as similar in English, where there are different rules for the Norman words. Persian also has a similar dilemma. Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 5:32

One example may be the combination of Chinese characters with pinyin and Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號 alphabet/syllabary, respectively -- although it is not completely symmetrical to hiragana and katakana


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