What is okurigana?
Okurigana (送り仮名) are kana suffixes appended to kanji (漢字) stems, used for inflecting adjectives and verbs.
example: 安い (やすい)
Here, the kanji 安 (やす) is followed by the okurigana い.
In modern usage, okurigana is almost always written in hiragana. In classic Japanese, katakana usage was also popular.
How is okurigana used?
Okurigana exists for several reasons:
- To indicate the tense of a verb or adjective.
安い (やすい) Cheap (present), meaning, "It's cheap."
安かった (やすかった) Cheap (past), meaning, "It was cheap."
- To indicate positivity or negativity.
安い (やすい) Cheap (positive), meaning, "It's cheap."
安くない (やすくない) Cheap (negative), meaning, "It's not cheap."
- To indicate a level of politeness.
買う (かう) To buy (plain form), meaning, "I'll take it."
買います (かいます) To buy (polite form), meaning, "I'll buy it."
- To disambiguate kanji with multiple readings.
空 (そら) Sky
空く (すく) To become empty.
下 (した) Down; under; beneath.
下りる (おりる) To get off; descend.
下がる (さがる) To hang down.
下さる (くださる) To give; confer.
話 (はなし) Conversation. (noun)
話す (はなす) To speak. (verb)
Often the same word will have different okurigana versions.
分かる (わかる) vs 分る (わかる)
Usually one will be classified as irregular okurigana (分る in this case). Guidelines on okurigana usage have been issued several times, the 'regularisation' often serving to distinguish words that would otherwise have ambiguous readings.
To take the example of にがす vs のがす. Both use the kanji 逃 to start, so if you see 逃す how can you tell which it is to be read as? Well using the regular okurigana 逃がす = にがす and 逃す = のがす. However the irregular okurigana version of にがす is 逃す, making for ambiguous readings.
For more information on conjugating forms: