If you are new to learning Japanese, you may have noticed a curious element to the language itself. There are no spaces. Of course, if you are familiar with other languages such as Chinese or Burmese the lack of spaces between the words would be nothing new. However, for speakers of languages which do use spaces, such as English, French, German, Spanish, and countless other languages, this appears to be a daunting task. In order to understand why Japanese does not use spaces in writing, it is important to first go back in time and see the origin of the writing system itself.
Back in Time
The Japanese writing system did not consist of Hiragana or Katakana until rather recently (about 800 AD). Japanese speakers did not have a written language, their language was basically a spoken language up until the adoption of the Chinese writing system occurred. Although there are some differing hypotheses as to when the Chinese writing system was adopted, it’s has also been speculated that despite the “adoption” of the Chinese Hanzi, the Japanese remained illiterate for a few hundred years.
How does it play out in writing?
So why is it important to look at these historical details? Well, when investigating the Chinese script itself, we find that it’s not exactly an alphabet. It is more of a logographic system. This means that unlike English for instance, where each character represents a letter and a combination of letters formulate words, Chinese characters are not individual letters, but rather they are expressive of words or phrases. Contrasting that with alphabet based languages such as English, German, Spanish and so forth, this begins to make sense.
English requires spaces in order to be legible. Chinese – and by extension – Japanese does not require spaces in order to be legible. If you were not an English speaker looking at a series of words without spaces will be daunting, even if you are able to read and write the language proficiently, there will be points of confusion without maintaining the spaces. Letters can merge when no cut off points are set (spaces) but in Chinese and Japanese, the use of Hanzi or Kanji allows for this to act as a natural divisor. Lets take a look at some examples
English – Hi, my name is Faisal. How are you doing?
It’s rather easy to see in this example how in English, the spaces really do help in identifying the words. Despite this example being relatively simple, there are still locations within that sentence which could be mistaken for different words at a glance. Now let’s take a look
Japanese – こんにちは私はファイサルです元気ですか
In our Japanese example, let’s break it up further. The first part is こんにちは This consists of the word and the topic marker particle “wa”. This particle helps distinguish the end of the topic. When “wa” is written as は and NOT わ we know that this indicates the topic.
Now we are clear to move on. 私 is our first kanji. When reaching this kanji, so far we know that the speaker has said hello (good afternoon) and is continuing on with their sentence. This kanji acts as another stop or space if you will, it lets us know that this is a new word. So technically we have two indicators as to the new word here, the kanji itself and the wa particle.
After the kanji, we are greeted with some Katakana. This is also a great break from the sentence and does indicate a new word. My name appears different since it has been modified to fit with the Katakana structure for foreign loan words. The katakana ファイサル indicates that these characters are independent of the previous particle, and therefore should be read as a word.
です is a copula that is relatively common, but to go even further than that, let’s assume the reader of the above sentence does not know that です is a copula. We move on and find our second kanji. So we must stop and take the words in between the Katakana characters and our new Kanji and assume that these two Hiragana characters formulate a word. The fact that it is a copula does help us because we know the meaning of です and therefore we can safely move on (the Kanji character that come next basically act as confirmation of our hypothesis).
元気 is a word which is formulated with two Kanji characters. Let’s assume we do not know what these words mean, we can continue and look forward in the sentence and we see that there is more Hiragana, in fact it’s the same copula we encountered before. Therefore, we can assume that 元気 is our next word. Now assuming that we do know the meaning of these words, we can say that means “well” or “healthy” typically speaking. Also we can look forward and see the copula, now we are clear to move forward and identify the next word in our example sentence.
We come across the です copula and we already know the function of this copula but if we didn’t, we would look forward and see that there is a single Hiragana character of か if we took a look at the dictionary, we would see the definition for just か, and not the Kanji that could be written as か in Hiragana form, is that it indicates a question. So we know it’s the question marker of a sentence. Now interestingly enough, even if ですか is assumed to be a word and a beginner puts that into a dictionary, the end result is still “indicates a question” but the beginner will quickly learn that か by itself is the question marker and です is the copula.
Yes, I’m going to start this off with a disclaimer. This DOES NOT apply in ALL cases. Languages have exceptions to their rules. English probably being the worst offender of them all in fact. These rules generally apply in regular texts. There are some notable exceptions where spaces are used in Japanese. Such is the case with books geared towards young children. They have a limited comprehension of Kanji, and therefore spaces are used within the Hiragana only texts as a means of providing the child with distinct words.
Also, when Kanji is being learned, it is often not learned as a single unit. Associations to other Kanji characters are used. For instance, if I know 曜日as meaning the “day of the week” I can break down that Kanji into its separate components but because the learner already knows that meaning, if they see this exact Kanji sequence in writing (and they will since it’s quite common) they intuitively know that it means day of the week without having to worry about the character before it or after. Of course if we write 月曜日it’s important to look at the Kanji preceding the the “day of the week” portion in order to understand the word, but this comes with practice.
Again, I can not stress this enough, these rules are not hard and fast. There will be exceptions. There are some words which are written with Kanji, Hiragana AND Katakana characters. However, these examples stand out on their own and based on the context of what is being read, generally speaking, having no spaces in Japanese is not as bad as it seems, although it is an element of the language which certain individuals may not be familiar with, but that is all part of the learning experience.