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I always thought that besides Kanji, one of the most difficult things about Japanese was its immense amount of homophones. For example, 花 (はな), which means flower, and 鼻 (also はな) which means nose. In the sources and books I read, I am simply supposed to tell the difference by context, and this isn't always easy. Let me elaborate:

[甘美]{うまみ}の花は赤く見える
[Talking to Umami] Your flower looks red.

[甘美]{うまみ}の鼻は赤く見える
[Talking to Umami] Your nose looks red.

If I was talking to Umami before that statement and it was clear we were taking about her flower or her nose than yes, I suppose context would help. However, if this was the starting statement, it might not be completely clear. Hypothetically, if she was sick and bringing me a red flower, she wouldn't know from the context and I would have wasted my time specifying that I was talking about the organ or the plant.

Would pitch be helpful or even necessary to differentiate the subject in this case? If so, then why do English sources leave it out? If anything, it should be one of the first things learned, seeing that I basically had to re-learn all of the words I thought I knew how to pronounce perfectly.

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Can you remove those examples and rewrite your question without depending on them? Those sentences are not grammatical. In addition, 甘美 is not read as うまみ, and neither 甘美 nor うまみ sounds like a name. (If rewriting is impossible, it is fine. I think that I can guess what you wanted to ask, although I am not very sure.) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 1 '13 at 5:54
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At least one person has written a rationale: Against Marking Accent Locations in Japanese Textbooks (link taken from this answer) –  snailboat Feb 1 '13 at 7:29
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In response to "I basically had to re-learn all of the words I thought I knew how to pronounce perfectly.": There are other features of Japanese pronunciation besides pitch accent which aren't shown by kana. This is just my opinion, but I think you'll have to do a lot of listening if you want to work on your pronunciation. –  snailboat Feb 1 '13 at 8:18
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I don't think you can get an answer without asking every textbook writer why they didn't include it. There could be multiple reasons depending on the author(s)/publisher. A large part may be because most textbooks are written assuming you are in a classroom and will have a teacher to correct pronunciation (but I have no sources to back this up). It would be interesting to know if JSL textbooks written in Chinese, for example, include pitch accents. –  nkjt Feb 1 '13 at 20:31
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Although it bugs the crap out of me, I'm afraid that the answer to this question may be that textbooks provide a "good enough" pronunciation that people can be understood. I really wish that all text books listed it with the vocab though; I've known Japanese people to pick out gaijin recordings based on the pitch accent of a few words! Fortunately, there are dictionaries. This site lists pitch accent with entries. A lot of people one for their Casios, too. –  Nate Glenn Feb 5 '13 at 18:34

2 Answers 2

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Not all ambiguous pairs can be distinguished by pitch, and we could just as easily provide you with loads of other ambiguous statements where NOTHING other than context could lead you to the right meaning.

This kind of thing happens in all languages: in English, if I tell a female friend "You have a nice pair/pear", she'll rely on context (I hope) to tell which I meant.

As for why pitch isn't dealt with in general in Japanese courses, my conclusion so far is that 1) the vast majority of teachers (at least non-university teachers outside of Japan) do no possess enough knowledge about how pitch accent works to be able to teach it, and 2) not all Japanese native speakers are comfortable enough with the pronunciation of Standard/Tokyo Japanese to be able to dictate how words should be pronounced.

Similarly, most English teachers would probably struggle to explain why plural -s sounds different in 'houses', 'cats' and 'dogs', or how stress is assigned in noun compounds -- although these are generally simpler issues than pitch accent as a whole.

Unfortunately, minimal pairs are not generally a very conducive way to argue in favour of teaching pitch accent. Personally, I would think that allowing students to be more easily understood would form a better argument. I also think that having a better understanding of how Japanese is pronounced leads to better comprehension, communication, vocabulary retention and fluency.

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Very insightful point! I think you are right that pitch matters. As a case in point, say if my daughter is reading a textbook aloud in homework and gets a pitch wrong, I would correct her, because it's noticable.

On the other hand, Japanese dictionaries written for Japanese do not have the pitch information either, and people from different regions often speak the same word with drastically different pitch, yet that doesn't make it any harder to understand what they are saying.

So all in all, I'd say it's not outrageous that many English sources leave this out.

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"Japanese dictionaries written for Japanese do not have the pitch information either" That is not entirely correct. 大辞林 and 新明解国語辞典 are common examples of 国語辞典 that include accent-pitch information. –  Dono Feb 11 '13 at 4:45

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