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I recently boasted to a native speaker that I can pronounce Japanese with a high degree of precision, while he has trouble with pronouncing the "L" sound in English. Later in the discussion he stopped me and insisted that I was mistaking a Japanese pronunciation. He said:
'黒海{こっかい}’ is pronounced differently than '国会{こっかい}’

(1) I don't believe him. Is there really more than one way to pronounce "こっかい”, or any other word? Every word can be written in kana, and kana pronunciation is not ambiguous?
(2) Is it even possible for Japanese to have the concept of a heteronyms? A heteronym must be written the same way and pronounced differently. But, almost every Japanese word can be written two different ways: kana and kanji. Without a unique way to write a word, heteronyms don't make sense?

Is this a valid assertion: "The Japanese language does not support the concept of 'heteronyms'."?

maybe this page needs to be updated and improved? http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:Japanese_heteronyms

thank you.

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Besides pitch accent, there are other ways pronunciation can differ that aren't necessarily reflected in kana. Some examples: the conjunction が may be pronounced [ŋa] (in other words, with the nasal allophone of /g/ sometimes transcribed <ng>), while the word for moth が is typically pronounced [ga]. Kana don't indicate devoiced vowels. The kana おう don't indicate the contrast in pronunciation between 王 /oː/ and 追う /ou/. Words with variant pronunciations like 体育 and 女王 are often spelled in kana in traditional manner (たいいく and じょおう) even when they're pronounced differently (タイク and ジョーオー). –  snailboat Apr 10 '14 at 3:55

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's a matter of pitch accent. In a manner somewhat similar to Chinese, Japanese actually has 2 tones that establish its inflectional patterns. They aren't widely taught to foreigners because the patterns vary amongst regions (e.g. Osaka and Tokyo are near-opposite), but one purpose that they do serve is to distinguish between homophones.

According to the 1980 edition of the 明解日本語アクセント辞典 published by 三省堂, the proper inflectional patterns are as follows:

  • 黒海 こっかい【HLLL】
  • 国会 こっかい【LHHH】

So in the case of 黒海 you would start on a higher pitch and it would fall after the first; in the case of 国会 it starts low and then rises.

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You'll find the most famous one is the distinction between 橋 and 箸. I think that's one that changes regionally, and I've been quizzed several times on how I say it. –  ssb Apr 10 '14 at 2:31
I know that you said "somewhat similar to Chinese" but I think there's a distinction between a tonal language and pitch accent. Somewhat simplifying maybe, the former is the change in pitch on the phoneme itself, the latter between phonemes. –  Szymon Apr 10 '14 at 2:36
@ssb If you consider 端 too, you need a following particle to distinguish by accent: 橋が ([はしが]{LHL}), 端が ([はしが]{LHH}), 箸が ([はしが]{HLL}) –  snailboat Apr 10 '14 at 3:11
Here's a slightly tongue-in-cheek youtube video focused on regional differences, also providing a helpful tongue-twister for the variations on はし. –  jkerian Apr 10 '14 at 5:20
@Szymon - if you look at tone crosslinguistically, there's no real justification for the term 'pitch-accent', since there's no reason to believe 'pitch-accent' is fundamentally different from normal tone. Basically, Japanese has a very small number of tone distinctions per word (due to things like tones spreading across several syllables), whereas Chinese has tone distinctions on every syllable. Japanese isn't the only tone language that doesn't allow tone to change within a syllable - most Athabaskan and Bantu languages are the same. –  Sjiveru Apr 10 '14 at 16:43

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