I'm going to steal some notes from Japanese: The Written Language by Eleanor Jorden and Mari Noda before we begin. They mention that katakana is also used for Japanese words intended to stand out, a bit like putting something in italics. It's also used often in onomatopoiec words, like "gatagata" for a rattling sound.
To quote from JWL: We can make a general statement to the effect that it is possible for the Japanese to use katakana to represent English . . . katakana-style guddo-mooningu "good morning" represents English pronounced as if it was Japanese.
So in writing English words in katakana, you have to think of them as said in a Japanese accent. Aside from the actual symbols of katakana, there are a few little things you can add in to help produce this pronunciation (such as the lengthening symbol and the "small tu" which lengthens consonants). I'll introduce those sometime too.
JWL points out that the main problem in using katakana to represent English is that it's a syllabic system instead of alphabetic. Each symbol represents a sound that we'd generally use two letters for. Here's what JWL says:
For example, if we take the names "Nina and "Lisa" as examples, English speakers hear 4 sounds in each. We also hear similar vowel sequences in the two names and use the same letters "i" and "a" to represent them. What is more, we hear the consonant "n" twice in the first name, and therefore expect the same letter to occur twice in its spelling.
But what about the katakana representation? Each name is written by mora (the syllable-like Japanese units that each represent one beat) and therefore no symbol will occur twice in the writing of these two names: nothing in the writing will suggest either the resemblance in the vowels or the occurrence of "n" twice in "Nina". The first symbol for "Nina" will represent "ni" and the last, totally different symbol, will represent "na".
I think I'll just introduce a few katakana symbols and their approximate pronunciation in roman characters. They won't be exact--for example, katakana "ra" isn't English pronunciation of "r". It's a little like a combination of r, l and d. But I want to be especially clear about the vowels. There are only five vowel sounds in Japanese, but each of them can be lengthened. That doesn't change its actual sound, but just the time that you're saying the sound for. (It also has an effect on the meaning; for instance, "obasan" means "aunt" while "obaasan" means "grandmother".) I've included the lengthening symbol at the end.
I'll be using roman characters to explain pronunciation of the katakana, so here are the sounds that the vowels make:
a - the "a" in "father"
i - the "ee" in "knee"
u - the "oo" in "goose"
e - the "ei" in "eight" --however, cut the sound off shorter than we generally do in English. We often let it glide into an "ay" sort of sound--leave the "y" off
o - the "o" in "cocoa" --like with e, cut the sound off shorter. We tend to end the sound with a "w" sort of thing--leave that off.
One more thing to mention is that, in writing Japanese, stroke order and the direction in which you write the strokes is very important. It isn't like in English where the writing books tell you how to form letters, but you can really write them in any order you'd like. If a Japanese person (or maybe it's just teachers) sees you write the strokes in the wrong order, you haven't written it properly, even if the end result looks the same. I think counting strokes and getting them in the right order becomes particularly useful when writing kanji, but it's good to get in the habit with katakana. Also, each katakana symbol takes up the same amount of space, both written and spoken. Each katakana fits neatly into the same sized square as the others, just as each one is held out for the same length as the others in speech.
All this having been said, I present katakana, in no particular order (at first):
Here is "ni":
And here is the page on how to write it.
See, now you can write it! You can write it as many times as you'd like. Ni! Ni! Ninini!
Katakana can be written horizontally, like English, or vertically. If written vertically, the katakana look the same--they're not flipped over or anything. So "nini" looks like this:
I'll add one more quite important symbol, and that's the one for lengthening a syllable. If you want to draw a vowel sound out for an extra mora (syllable, or beat), then put the lengthening symbol after the katakana. A mora is only ever lengthened for one extra mora. In horizontal writing, that symbol looks like this:
and is written from left to right. In vertical writing, this is written like a line from top to bottom--it's the only symbol that changes depending on what direction you're writing in. You add this symbol on to any katakana to lengthen the vowel sound, so ba+lengtheningsymbol=baa. So for example:
Is pronounced like "niniinini".
In learning "ni" and the horizontal lengthening symbol, you've also learned two kanji. (Kanji are the Japanese characters borrowed from China that you can't read phonetically, but have to memorize individually.) The kanji for the number "one" looks like the horizontal lengthening symbol and is often pronounced "iti" (where "ti" sounds like "chi"), while the kanji for "two" looks like "ni" and is often pronounced "ni". Kanji are completely different from katakana, though, and I don't think I'll be mentioning them again for awhile.
After next lesson, hopefully we can write something meaningful :) Let me know if you have any suggestions or corrections.