The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Japanese pitch accent

The several dialects of the Japanese language have a pitch accent, though the position of the accent for a given word varies among them. As for instance, standard (Kantō) Japanese for "now" is I-ma, but the Kansai dialect has i-MA instead.

The accent rules in standard Japanese (hyōjungo) are presented here as an example:

  1. If the accent is on the first syllable, then the pitch starts high and drops suddenly at the second syllable, then goes down more slowly. Nevertheless, Japanese speakers hear the first syllable as special.
  2. If the accent is on a syllable other than the first or the last, then the pitch rises gradually until he syllable after the accented syllable, and there goes down suddenly. A native speaker will hear the accented vowel as higher than the rest, even though the maximum pitch is actually in the next syllable.
  3. If the word doesn't have an accent, the pitch rises continuously from a low at the start of the word to a high at its end, just like French. About 80% of all Japanese words belong to this class, and the Japanese describe their sound as "flat" (heibon) or "accentless".

The foregoing description is based in speech analysis. Traditionally, however, accent is taught to Japanese-as-a-second-language learners using the "two-pitch-level theory". According to it, all Japanese syllables are either high or low in pitch, rather like the two levels of Navajo or the three levels of Yoruba. The two-pitch-level theory claims that the rules are:

  1. If the accent is on the first syllable, then the first syllable is high-pitched and the others are low: H-L, H-L-L, etc.
  2. If the accent is on a syllable other than the first, then the first syllable is low, the following syllables are high up to and including the accented one, and the rest of the syllables are low: L-H, L-H-L, L-H-H-L, L-H-H, etc.
  3. If the word doesn't have an accent, the first syllable is low and everything else is high (and this spreads to grammatical particles, usually unaccented, that may attach at the end of the word).

To illustrate the difference, a word such as o-mo-shi-RO-i, which has the accent in the fourth, is pronounced with a gradually rising pitch from the beginning until the middle of the fifth syllable, then the pitch drops suddenly. But, according to the two-level theory, this word should be pronounced with a flat tone in each syllable: low-pitched o, high-pitched mo-shi-ro, and low-pitched i. This description is inexact but is good enough to be useful in class, when you are spelling out words one kana at a time: o - MO - SHI - RO - i. However, the Japanese never pronounce in this way outside class, even when reciting classical poetry.

In poetry, o-mo-shi-ro-i would be pronounced in five beats (morae), with the tone very gradually rising during the first four, then dropping suddenly at the i. Outside poetry, though, the last two morae of omoshiroi get slurred into a diphthong, rhyming with "boy" and pronounced with a descending tone.

Some linguists have yet another view of accent. In this view, a word either has an "accent kernel" or it does not. If it does, the pitch drops on the mora after the accented one; if it does not, the pitch remains (more or less) constant throughout the length of the word. The initial rise in the pitch of the word is not due to lexical accent, but rather to phrasal accent: if the first word in a phrase does not have accent on the first mora, then it is pronounced with a low pitch, and the following mora is pronounced with a high pitch. Each "accent kernel" triggers another drop in pitch, and this accounts for the gradual drop in pitch throughout a phrase.

Accent is sometimes taught to non-Japanese learners of Japanese, but it is never taught to the Japanese themselves in grade school, so most of them are not explicitly aware of its existence. Most Japanese people who are not linguists will deny that there is any variation in pitch between Japanese syllables, since Japanese is not a tonal language like Chinese. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean they'll understand you if you say KA-ki ("oyster") when you should say ka-KI ("persimmon"). They realize that they do pronounce these two words differently, but curiously enough, attribute this to a difference not of pitch but of kanji.

Examples of words which differ only in pitch

These examples are in standard (Kantō) Japanese.

Accent on first syllable Accent elsewhere, or accentless
I-ma now i-MA 居間 (Western style) living room
SA-ke salmon sa-ke alcohol, sake
NI-ho-n 二本 (counter for two long thin objects) ni-HO-n 日本 Japan
HA-shi chopsticks ha-SHI bridge
KA-ki 牡蠣 oyster ka-ki persimmon

External links


  • Akamatsu, Tsutomu. (1997). Japanese phonetics: Theory and practice. München: LINCOM EUROPA.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1950). Studies in colloquial Japanese IV: Phonemics. Language, 26, 86-125.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1977). The tone pattern of Japanese: An autosegmental theory of tonology. Tokyo: Kaitakusha.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1999). Accent. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 1, p. 1-30). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20504-7.
  • Kubozono, Haruo. (1999). Mora and syllable. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 2, pp. 31-61). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Martin, Samuel E. (1975). A reference grammar of Japanese. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • McCawley, James D. (1968). The phonological component of a grammar of Japanese. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vance, Timothy. (1987). An introduction to Japanese phonology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Last updated: 05-15-2005 22:18:49