Today’s topic is something that very few people knew about when learning Japanese several decades ago, but is becoming a more increasingly popular topic among modern Japanese language learners. What is pitch accent in Japanese?
It is both similar to and different from how we use stress in English.
It something that is still rarely talked about in textbooks, yet can have a hugely positive effect on how native-like your verbal abilities can become. Let’s get into it now.
Stressing Syllables (In English)
Throughout this course I have been assuming that your native language is English (like mine), so I apologize if that is not the case for you.
I’m going to keep using English as my go-to language for compare and contrast type situations with Japanese since that is what I am most familiar with.
In English, we use a system that puts stress on a syllable within each word. This “stress” is really just an extra amount of force, or emphasis that gets added and makes the overall word sound a certain way.
If you change the placement of the stress in a word, you change the way that it sounds. Sometimes, it can even change the meaning of the word, although it is not all that common in English.
Here are three examples of where I have separated out each syllable by a dash, and highlighted the part of the word that gets stressed by writing it in uppercase letters.
- America = a-ME-ri-ca
- Passport = PASS-port
- Ridiculous = ri-DIC-u-lous
As an English speaker, you might not be aware of how we stress very specific syllable in our words because that’s the only way that you’ve ever heard them used.
But if we change the stress onto other syllables where to do not belong, then they not only sound weird, but they actually sound like a different word entirely.
Let’s take that same list of words from before and move the stress onto a different syllable. I will use the same notation method as above, as well as provide an audio file to listen to.
- America = a-me-RI-ca
- Passport = pass-PORT
- Ridiculous = ri-dic-U-lous
If you’ve ever heard people who learned English as a foreign language speak, you may have noticed that they say certain words with incorrect stress placement like this.
But I’m not just picking on foreigners. Us Americans do it too!
If you read books a lot, as I tend to do, then you probably run into a lot of words that you’ve never heard before. The human mind automatically sub-vocalizes words that it reads, and if you’ve never correctly heard a word before, then your brain will try to figure it out by the spelling.
In my case, I had read the word “hegemony” many times and thought it was pronounced like “hedge-money” since I knew what a “hedge” was and of course I knew about “money” as well.
But the actual word is pronounced very differently. It’s more along the lines of “huh-JE-muh-nee” which I never knew about until I decided to finally look it up and learn the correct way to say it.
Stressing Pitch (In Japanese)
The Japanese language also uses a system to stress certain parts of words, but it’s not used on the syllables. It’s used on the pitch.
In the featured picture of this post we have the word せんせい (teacher) which has four morae and can be broken down into parts like [se-n-se-i].
But all four of these parts should receive an equal amount of force.
Instead, what the Japanese language does is used pitch accent patterns where the intonation of the syllables move.
There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to how the pitch moves in Japanese words.
- It can go up, down, or stay the same.
- The first mora will always be different from the second.
In the case of the word せんせい, again from the picture above, you can see that the pitch rises from the first mora to the second. Then it stays the same from the second to the third. Finally, it falls from the third to the fourth.
And just as the English language uses a stressed syllable for every word, the Japanese language uses a pitch accent pattern for all of its words too.
There are a total of four different patterns that determine if the pitch rises, lowers, or does both within a single word.
The Four Pitch Accent Patters
There are four pitch accent patterns that a word can fall into to. Let’s take a look at each one now.
The first pattern is called へいばん which means “flat.” It starts low on the first mora and then rises up on the second mora. It then stays high for the remainder of the word.
The second pattern is called あたまだか which means “head high.” It starts high on the first mora (hence the name) and then falls low on the second mora. It then stays low for the remainder of the word.
Once a pitch falls from high to low in a word, it then stays that way for the rest of the word. It will not raise a second time.
The third pattern is called なかだか which means “middle high.” It starts low on the first mora and then raises high on the second mora. Then, somewhere later in the word it will drop back to low.
The exact placement of where it drops depends on the specific word. Longer words have more opportunities to drop from, so they become a little more important to look up to see when the timing is correct.
The fourth pattern is called おだか which means “tail high.” This pattern is similar to the first one because it starts low on the first mora, raises high on the second mora, and then stays high for the remainder of the word.
Where it is different is when it comes to the particle attached to the end of the word. With おだか the pitch falls low onto the particle (whereas in へいばん it would stay high).
If you’re not sure what a Japanese particle is yet, then just know that it is a unique aspect of the grammar.
Let’s take a look at how this actually occurs with a few Japanese words and some illustrations that show it. I will label each mora as low or high, but that is just to help you see the direction of the pitch’s movement if and when it changes.
いぬ (low – high) = Dog
ねこ (high – low) = Cat
がくせい (low – high – high – high) = Student
せんせい (low – high – high – low) = Teacher
あいさつ (high – low – low – low) = Greetings
This may seem like a lot of information to take in, and it is, but I don’t want you to worry about mastering it right away.
My intention is to bring this information into your awareness and give you some experience with it. Once you’ve got that, you should be able to start noticing it on your own when you listen to Japanese.
This should help you to pick up the correct patterns which will improve your pronunciation when speaking.
Using the correct pitch pattern can help the listener understand what you’re saying for two reasons. The first reason is similar to the English examples we used with incorrect stress placement.
If you use the wrong pitch pattern in Japanese on a word, it might confuse the listener if that’s not really a word in the language.
The other reason why using correct pitch helps is because there are a lot of words that are spelled the same (in hiragana) but use different pitch, which means that you might say one word when you really mean a different one.
Let’s go more into that now.
Pitch Helps With Homophones
I think I mentioned what homophones were once before in this course, but it probably won’t hurt to say it again since it is not a common word in English.
A homophone is basically “two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings.” A simple example would be the words “to; too; two” which are all pronounced the same, but have different meanings.
The same thing happens in Japanese. Actually, it happens a lot more often in Japanese due to the limited number of sounds that are used!
That’s where the pitch accent can help. Many times, although not always, the Japanese words that are spelled the same in hiragana will use different pitch accent patterns.
To the Japanese, this difference in pitch (and therefore meaning) is obvious and so they may not understand why a student of the language would mistakenly use one word when they really meant to use another.
Here are two examples of what I’m talking about.
はし (low – high) = Bridge
はし (high – low) = Chopsticks
いま (high – low) = Now
いま (low – high) = Living room
As you can see and hear from the above, if you’re talking to a friend and you ask them to pass you some chopsticks, but you use the wrong pitch pattern, you’ll end up asking them to pass you a bridge!
Making these kinds of mistakes is a part of the learning process, and there’s little doubt that the context of the situation will help clarify what you really mean, but now you understand why you friend might look at you strongly when you are sure you used the correct word.
Pitch Accent Tools
There are actually a lot of really fantastic resources that you can use to lookup the correct pitch pattern to use.
I’ve written about them extensively in my post on Japanese Pitch Accent Resources.
If this is something that you would like to learn more about, then I encourage you to check out that post and start trying out the things I recommend.
A lot of them are free, so you can try them out right away and see which ones are the most valuable for you.
Now that you know about this aspect of Japanese, it is time to move on to something new!
Let me know if you have any questions or comments regarding pitch accent.
Go to the Table of Contents
Go to the next lesson
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: