Pitch Accent in Japanese

This post is prompted by an article on Doug’s blog Japan: Life and Religion. It made me think again of the issue of pitch accent in Japanese; a recurring topic on BBSes and Blogs but rarely covered in textbooks or classrooms. Rather than highjack his comments (as I tend to write lo~ng comments) I ‘ll post my thoughts here.Japanese uses pitch accent. English uses stress accent.
The rules are these1:

  • It has two tones high and low.
  • The pitch change doesn’t occur within a syllable but at the change of syllables.
  • When the first syllable is high the second is low, when the first is low the second is high.
  • Within a word (phrase?) once the pitch lowers it won’t rise again.
  • Particles become part of a word when considering pitch accent

So with two syllables the possible accents are FF (flat), LH, HL.
Flat is usually marked as being low tone but I think this can change when a high tone precedes it; you just continue in that tone, you don’t necessarily drop the tone.
With four syllables the permutations are FFFF, LHLL, LHHL, LHHH, HLLL.

This is fine until you start putting words together.
A preceding phrase’s pitch can affect a following phrase. So a high tone may be sustained in rapid gapless speech until the next drop in tone, or a rise in tone may be ignored if the preceding phrase ends in a low tone. 2
illustrated in these two phrases

oHAYOU goZAIMAsu — two words
oHAYOU GOZAIMAsu — one phrase

aRIgatou goZAIMAsu — two words
aRIgatou gozaimasu — one phrase

but even then this isn’t a hard and fast rule, consider this example.3

haNA is the accent for both nose and flower
haNA ga akai — the flower is red
haNA GA AKAI — his nose is red

In fact the rules (if there are any) start to get complicated when you go away from single words and start using sentences. Then there are regional changes, even within the standard accent 4, and words whose pitch accent is variable. Kindachi goes so far as to say ” …it would seem that there are no fixed accent patterns at all. ”

Usually pitch accent is presented as the method to distinguish synonyms. Unfortunately given the small amount of variation in pitch and the large number of synonyms this isn’t as useful as you might think.
kougyou 工業 industry and kougyou 鉱業 mining for instance. or
nou for 能 talent 脳 brain 農 farming
Fortunately context will give meaning in 99.9% of cases.

Another problem is where to find out the tones of a given word. As far as I’m aware only specialist dictionaries such as NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典in Japanese give them. Proper standard Japanese is very important in broadcasting, although like the BBC who once only used received pronunciation maybe regional variations might become more acceptable in Japan. For L2 learners the only markers I’ve seen are difficult to read. I’ve seen accent marked by using capitals, or putting an accent over the last high tone, when using romaji. In kana I’ve seen lines under and over kana, or by using superscript for high tones. I’ve even seen musical notation used to denote tones. But overall it’s very hard to read passages marked up in these ways.
The most comprehensive textbook I’ve seen for pitch accent is Gene Nishi’s Japanese Step by Step. Which could work as basic dictionary of sorts.

There is stress in terms of emotion or emphasis, but it’s important not to use English stress patterns, or to use English stress (louder and longer) in place of pitch stress ( a pitch change, a diatonic step). Although anyone who has heard a Japanese woman say sugoi has heard how elongation emphasis occurs (on the syllable before i as it happens)

I think therefore that the important thing is to know of pitch accent’s existence. Rather than mark up books in very cumbersome ways it is best to learn proper pronunciation by mimicry. Learn by shadowing or by having a native correct you. I think a uniformly flat accent is the most acceptable foreign accent. The most important things are to avoid stress accents in an English fashion and to pronounce Japanese loan words in Japanese rather than English. Bear in mind what English sounds like when the stress accent is placed in the wrong place. One of my Japanese teachers finds the way Japanese place-names are mangled into American English on the Tokyo underground English announcements very distracting for instance.

afterthoughts and updates
#1 I think it is the advent of cheap CDs that stopped textbook makers attempting to markup accents. What could be better than a recording of the Japanese words and passages?

#2 Thinking back to Doug’s piece, children as part of their language acquisition skills are very good at discerning differences and mimicking them. As you get older you lose this ability, so it’s no surprise that Doug’s daughter has no problem and the relatively ancient L2 learners do.

#3 To complicate matters I’ve noticed that verbs can change their pitch accent depending on their declension. For instance 見る miru but mimasu

#4 Thanks to arunlikhati for the link to the paper on marking accents.

#5 there are recordings of pitch accents in otherwise identical words here. Are your ears tuned enough to tell the difference in a single word out of context? (possibly offline due to earthquake in Northern Japan Sunday March 13 2011)

#6 There is a CD ROM companion to the NHK dictionary that looks quite interesting. You compare recordings of your voice to a standard recording to see where you’re going wrong.

#7 From a high school Japanese teacher Katie Suttles on Edufire a link to a teaching supplement for the Genki textbooks. You can see just how cumbersome marking Japanese text for tones is. Without audio I doubt it would be any use at all.

#8 I finally got a chance to ask a Japanese teacher (and teacher-trainer) about what the thinking is in teaching pitch accent.
The “official” line is to introduce new words with correct pronunciation and hand gestures and mark the pitch accent in handouts.
However it is found that in the classroom when accent signs are used in handouts students’ accents sound slightly strange as they are more cautious when pronouncing, loosing fluency.

In adult education where you probably only have 2 hours contact per week, communication and fostering fluency take precedence over the fine tuning of accents. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I think it would also be very demoralising to have a teacher try to fine tune your pitch when you might not be able to hear the difference; it’s hard enough to remember the words and get them out grammatically at a reasonable speed.

The advice for self-instruction is to understand about pitch but to learn accent by emulation of model Japanese sentences. ie shadowing.

Indeed I was thinking to myself how do you know you’ve got the correct accent even if you have annotations in front of you. You need a feedback loop of some sort to fine tune what you are producing. You can’t really hear yourself talk, so you either have to record yourself and compare your accent (WordChamp has an interesting on-line application that allows you to do this and overlay your recording and waveform with a native speaker’s) or have a native speaker who will listen to you and try to correct you.

#9 (Oct ’09) Through a post on JapanesePod101 I found that goo’s online dictionaries have accent information in their entries.

1. Haruhiko Kindachi, The Japanese Language translated by Umeyo Hirano (Tuttle 1978) pp117 to 123
2. Gene Nishi, Japanese Step by Step (McGraw Hill 2001) p20
3. Clarke and Hamamura, Colloquail Japanese (Routledge 1981) p9
4. Yoko Hasegawa, Against Marking Accent Locations in Japanese Textbooks (University of California) section 5

13. May 2009 by ロバート
Categories: 05 speaking • 話す事 | Tags: | 6 comments

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