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My studies taught me there's two ways to say each mora in Japanese, with the way you normally talk and when you put a bit more emphasis on a mora, i.e. when someone says なつかしい, the word would be sounded out as na-tsu-ka-SHI-i.

I know only one dictionary that shows the way the words are emphasized (the Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary), and I feel it uses overly complex terminology to get the point across. I want to able to put the principles into terms ordinary folks can understand, but every resource I have is either too complicated or tells me that the language doesn't put any emphasis on individual mora, which I know is totally wrong.

So, how does pitch accent work in Japanese?

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The accent falls on si (which I assume is why you wrote it in capitals), but it is high before that for all but the initial mora. Perhaps you intended this, but it is not clear in the lower vs upper case notation. I would re-write this as na-TU-KA-SI-i. (Or even without the hyphens.) –  Dono Feb 11 '13 at 5:32
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I am not sure what you are referring to as “emphasis.” In Tokyo dialect, なつかしい is pronounced as Low-High-High-High-Low as Dono explained and not as Low-Low-Low-High-Low, and it is not related to putting emphasis. If you mean pitch accent, unless you can pronounce naturally by looking at the high-low notation like this, I strongly recommend a textbook with a CD. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 11 '13 at 11:59
    
There are also electronic dictionaries with audio recordings of pronunciation you can listen to. –  snailboat Feb 12 '13 at 3:01
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I'm not sure what's being asked here... is it "how does pitch accent work in Japanese?" or "how do I find the pitch accent for Japanese words?" or "how do I explain pitch accent in a succinct way?" –  Darius Jahandarie Feb 14 '13 at 4:37
    
Ideally, all 3, but my main focus is "how does pitch accent work in Japanese?" –  Roy Fuentes Feb 14 '13 at 21:53

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You may be familiar with the concept of sentence-level pitch changes in English; for example when you are asking a question, you end the sentence with a rising pitch to indicate that it is indeed a question. Japanese also has sentence-level pitch changes, but more relevantly to this question, it has word-level pitch changes.


In the standard (Tokyo) dialect, word pitch accents are realized by something called a "downstep". The pitch of a word increases until the downstep, at which point the pitch drops.

Downsteps happen strictly between kana (the linguistics term being "mora"), not in the middle of a kana.

These pitches can sometimes be used to distinguish words with the same spelling. The canonical example is はし which is three-way ambiguous between 箸, 橋 and 端.

These words can be disambiguated in speech as follows:

  • 箸 (chopsticks) is はꜜし, namely the first kana must be pronounced high to facilitate the following drop
  • 橋 (bridge) is はしꜜ, the first kana pronounced low, the second high to facilitate the drop before the following kana (e.g., a particle in the sentence) which would be pronounced low.
  • 端 (edge) is はし, or "accentless", meaning that all characters are said at around the same pitch (including any following kana).

You may see an alternate "binary" notation for pitch accents which is composed of a series of "L"s and "H"s. For example, you would notate the はし words as follows:

  • 箸 (chopsticks) is HL(L)
  • 橋 (bridge) is LH(L)
  • 端 (edge) is LH(H)

However this notation is a little extraneous when it comes to succinctly marking the pitch accent of the word in the Tokyo dialect, because it always follows the pattern: start low (unless the downstep is right after the first kana), be high until the downstep, then stay low.

When discussing other dialects, sometimes more than just downsteps are required to analyze what is going on.


To find pitch accents for Japanese words, I'd say the best online resource is 大辞林.

For example, the 大辞林 entry for 箸 says はし with a subscript "1" to its right.

It uses yet another notation, where the number works as follows:

  • if the number is 0, it is an "accentless" word, i.e., does not have a downstep
  • if there is no number, the downstep is placed after the last kana
  • if it is any other number, the downstep is placed after that kana (hence 1 for 箸)

In the end, I'd say the downstep notation is the most succinct and expository notation when trying to notate standard Japanese pitch accent, but learning these other notations is useful to understand material about pitch accent.

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I have made 2 videos that offer a general overview of the system (a third is yet to come):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeaLEC6KO20

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKWrmxYmdy4

You can also consult my page on pitch accent (which is also referenced in the Wikipedia article another user mentions), although it's still very much a work in progress:

http://learnlangs.com/japanesepitch/index.php?title=Main_Page

In general, Japanese does not put 'emphasis' on morae, a point which is particularly important for speakers of languages that assign stress to one syllable of every word. In contrast, pitch accent is a system that assigns patterns of high and low morae to lexical units, groups or phrases. But you'll learn all about that if you simply watch the videos.

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cool vids. although I'd say to ppl not to bother learning pitch accent. if you don't automatically acquire it, then learning it will offer very little net gain compared to how much effort you have to put into it. –  taylor Feb 22 '13 at 11:49
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Except that nobody acquires it automatically. If you care about how you speak the language, it's worth learning, and it's worth the effort. I'm surprised at how easily people dismiss it as useless, simply because it's difficult. I think that if you work as a English teacher, for instance (and this is common enough in Japan), to be able to demonstrate that you can do a decent job of Japanese is an effective way to gain credibility. –  alexandrec Feb 22 '13 at 15:37
    
To be clear, I only mean that teaching or learning pitch-accent is not worthwhile. That's not saying that it's useless, it's saying that there are higher priorities, like vocabulary and idioms. Comparing the input of work for vocab, grammar, pitch-accent, etc., learning pitch-accent probably has the smallest pay-off. After all, you can still communicate well with a foreign accent, but not so well with an impoverished vocabulary. –  taylor Feb 22 '13 at 19:01

Standard Japanese has what is known as a "downstep" accent rather than free pitch accent like some dialects (notably Kansai) have. Basically, the "accent" in the handbooks represents the last high syllable.

Thus, "na-tsu-ka-SHI-i" would be pronounced "na-TSU-KA-SHI-i". The downstep is after the "shi". The first syllable is always low unless a downstep immediately follows it; then the first syllable becomes the "last stressed syllable" and automatically becomes high.

Wikipedia has a nice explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_pitch_accent

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