The modern hiragana syllabary consists of 46 base characters:
- 5 singular vowels
- 40 consonant–vowel unions
- 1 singular consonant
These are conceived as a 5×10 grid (gojūon, 五十音, "Fifty Sounds"), as illustrated in the adjacent table, read あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), お (o), か (ka), き (ki), く (ku), け (ke), こ (ko) and so forth, with the singular consonant ん (n) appended to the end. Of the 50 theoretically possible combinations, yi and wu do not exist in the language, and ye, wi and we are obsolete (or virtually obsolete) in modern Japanese. wo is usually pronounced as a vowel (o) in modern Japanese, and is preserved in only one use, as a particle.
Romanization of the kana does not always strictly follow the consonant-vowel scheme laid out in the table. For example, ち, nominally ti, is very often romanised as chi in an attempt to better represent the actual sound in Japanese.
These basic characters can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker ( ゛), a voiceless consonant is turned into a voiced consonant: k→g, ts/s→z, t→d, h→b and ch/sh→j. For example, か (ka) becomes が (ga). Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker ( ゜) changing the h to a p. For example, は (ha) becomes ぱ (pa).
A small version of the hiragana for ya, yu, or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ respectively) may be added to hiragana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide (palatalization) to a, u or o. For example, き (ki) plus ゃ (small ya) becomes きゃ (kya). Addition of the small y kana is called yōon.
A small tsu っ, called a sokuon, indicates that the following consonant is geminated (doubled). In Japanese this is an important distinction in pronunciation; for example, compare さか saka "hill" with さっか sakka "author". The sokuon also sometimes appears at the end of utterances, where it denotes a glottal stop, as in いてっ! ([iteʔ] Ouch!). However, it cannot be used to double the na, ni, nu, ne, no syllables' consonants – to double these, the singular n (ん) is added in front of the syllable, as in みんな (minna, "all").
Hiragana usually spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana; for example, おかあさん (o-ka-a-sa-n, "mother"). The chōonpu (long vowel mark) (ー) used in katakana is rarely used with hiragana, for example in the word らーめん, rāmen, but this usage is considered non-standard in Japanese; the Okinawan language uses chōonpu with hiragana. In informal writing, small versions of the five vowel kana are sometimes used to represent trailing off sounds (はぁ haa, ねぇ nee). Standard and voiced iteration marks are written in hiragana as ゝ and ゞ respectively.