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I'm aware of some words in Japanese that have the same reading but different meaning depending on the pitch of each syllable. The canonical example is はし (hashi), which can mean either chopsticks (HAshi) or bridge (hashi or haSHI).

However, most Japanese language books I have come across ignore the concept of pitch completely, and vocabulary lists never tell you the pitch you should use.

How important is it to speak with the correct pitch? Can I be understood without knowing the pitch sequence for each word?

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One of my pocket Japanese-English dictionaries I bought specifically because it does contain pitch accent information for every word, in its case using an acute accent, but I hear there are multiple systems and no one standard for indicating this. This book is The Practical Japanese-English Dictionary by Noah S. Brannen - ISBN 0-8348-0342-9 –  hippietrail Jun 13 '11 at 23:47

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It is worth pointing out that in Japanese, different dialects use different accent patterns for the same word.

The Japanese language taught as a foreign language is most likely to be 標準語 (ひょうじゅんご), which is based on the Tokyo dialect. Therefore, probably the “correct” accent pattern to use should be that of the Tokyo dialect (as in your examples of はし). However, of course not every native speaker speaks the Tokyo dialect, and some dialects (such as Osaka or Kyoto dialects) have completely different accent patterns from that of the Tokyo dialect. As a result, I believe that using the “correct” accent pattern is not crucial to make yourself understood.

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Indeed. Not to mention that in many cases (e.g., the famous HASHI) the Kansai accent is actually the complete opposite of 標準語. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 6 '11 at 7:08
    
@Ito: well put. Bear in mind if you speak with a particular region's accent, your intonation choices should reflect that area. You may do so as a natural consequence of living there. But if you learned Japanese in Kansai, any pronunciation guide published is likely to be Kanto dialect and therefore inapplicable. –  crunchyt Jun 17 '11 at 14:45
    
You correctly point out the dialectal differences, but I disagree with your opinion that the correct accent pattern is not crucial. If it is not, then why does such thing as accent pattern exist? What is crucial is to keep a consistent accent pattern, whatever dialect you are using. –  user458 Jul 5 '11 at 16:19
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@sawa: You seem to have misread my answer. I did not say that accent patterns are irrelevant. If you want to sound like a native speaker, you have to use a consistent accent pattern for sure. But I believe that doing so is not crucial to make yourself understood. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 5 '11 at 20:46

It is actually very much the same as homonyms in English. Consider the difference between
refuse |riˈfyoōz| and refuse |ˈrefˌyoōs; -ˌyoōz|. It sounds weird if you mix up the pronunciation:

I |ˈrefˌyoōs| to accept this.

It's bad English and identifies you as a non-native speaker.
If the context doesn't give enough hints as to which refuse you meant, it can even get confusing.

The Japanese difference between HAshi and haSHI is very similar. You should learn the correct pronunciation when you pick up a new word. Since Japanese has many more homophones than English, the difference can be crucial.

Western pronunciation differences are based on stress, while in Japanese it's based on pitch, which can be difficult to pick up for many western ears. That's the number one reason for bad "western" Japanese pronunciation (applying stress where non is needed and no pitch where it is) and "robotic English" spoken by Japanese (not applying stress where it is needed and applying pitch where it isn't). It is something you will have to practice until you can pick out and apply the difference naturally.

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+1 for a good answer. However I would disagree that pitch is the #1 reason for bad pronunciation. Too many people don't change speaking style or the "shape" of their sounds. They speak in foreign languages as if they were no different from their native language. It's more to do with mouth shape, tongue position and the like than pitch. Japanese natives often mix up pitch related things, depending on where they come from, etc... and recovery strategies are often used (e.g. oh do you mean X as in XX or Y as YYY?) –  crunchyt Jun 6 '11 at 4:28
    
@crunchyt I think "speaking foreign languages in their native pronunciation" is pretty much the problem, which is that the importance of stress/pitch should be reversed but isn't. Forming sounds incorrectly (especially vocals and らりるれろ) is of course another big factor. So it's the shared #1 reason, would you agree? ;) –  deceze Jun 6 '11 at 4:49
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crunchyt's on the mark here: pitch is only one aspect of proper pronunciation, and the "shape" of sounds is more important. I strongly believe the best way to learn shape and pitch is simply to expose your brain to as much listening practice (conversation, radio, podcasts) as possible. We all learn how to pronounce our native languages by imitating others, so why not do the same with a foreign language? –  Derek Schaab Jun 6 '11 at 12:42
    
This answer is hitting a lot of good points; especially the fact that inconsistent pitch (or pitch consistent with a non-native speaker's source language) is a shibboleth for non-native speakers. Even if it's not "Tokyo" pitch, it should at least match whatever dialect you're speaking in. –  Trevor Alexander Feb 5 at 23:42

Two pointers :

Yoko Hasegawa, Against marking accent locations in japanese textbooks, Japanese-Language Education Around the Globe.

柴田{しばた} 武{たけし}・柴田{しばた} 里程{りてい}, アクセントは同音語{どうおんご}をどの程度{ていど}弁別{べんべつ}しうるか ---日本語{にほんご}・英語{えいご}・中国語{ちゅうごくご}の場合{ばあい} (Is Word-Accent Significant in Differentiating Homonyms in Japanese, English and Chinese?)

Abstract : To answer the question if word-accent is significant for differentiating homonyms, a probabilistic model is constructed and applied for real data. It is a binominal model for the number of key words in a set of homonyms, each of which generates a group of words with the same accent. The common probability of a keyword occurrence indicates how strongly homonyms are differentiated with word-accent, although the model fitting is good for Japanese but not so for either English or Chinese. The estimated probabilities are 0.1357, 0.0047 and 0.71 respectively for Japanese, English and Chinese, which are significantly different.

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It's still understandable without correct accents, most of the time, but if you were able to use the correct intonation, then you would gain better fluency in Japanese obviously. I sometimes check at this site to check the the correct accents.

For example for that chopsticks「箸」, and bridge「橋」

enter image description here

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You can usually tell most of the time what you are talking about via context. –  Mark Hosang Jun 6 '11 at 2:47

First of all, knowing pitch is not as simple as knowing the pitch on each word. There are many morphological endings that make pitch change on verbs and adjectives. For instance, taBEru becomes TAbete because -te will make the pitch shift to the 3rd mora from the end when the verb has pitch. Pitch also changes when 2 words or more form a new compound word (pitch is usually on the first mora of the second word). haYAi becomes HAyaku because -ku moves the pitch to the 3rd mora from the end. And so on.

It's true that different dialects have different pitch, but you have to understand that their pitch is part of a integral system -- if they say hashi with the opposite pitch, this is less likely to confuse the listener if the rest of the person's speech behaves the same way. In fact, there are even some rules that allow to predict dialectal differences.

I always tried to pay a lot of attention to pitch -- doing most of my research myself because it's very hard to find information at all -- and while I usually get it right, there are frequently times when I say a word out of context and I get confused looks until someone repeats the word with the right pitch. Almost everyone says it's not that important, and sure, it's not the end of the word if you get English stress wrong either, but in reality, it does frequently create confusion, and if you care about being understood well, I'd definitely pay attention to pitch.

Most Japanese people have no idea how pitch works because they've never thought about it. It's extremely difficult to find any information, and most dictionaries never mention pitch. But nevertheless, if you can find the right resources, pitch is worth the trouble.

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I've created a video about Japanese Pitch Accent. Hope it helps. youtu.be/EeaLEC6KO20 –  alexandrec May 21 '12 at 17:41
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Sorry, I only just noticed your YouTube link. Unfortunately though, YouTube says this video is unavailable. Has it been removed? Or is it region locked? –  MatthewD Feb 1 at 0:16

You will be perfectly understood even if your pitch isn't "good". In cases where there is an ambiguity, people will either infer the intended word or just ask for clarification. If you want to learn a pitch, you can buy pitch dictionaries like this one.

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Hello @Axioplase and welcome to j.SE! Two small things 1) SE has a hard time dealing with UTF8 URLs (for now). If you can't avoid UTF8, it's recommended you use the 'link' button, which will automatically convert the UTF8 to percent-escaped format. 2) When replying to a question where a question has already been 'accepted' (the green checkmark on the left), it is recommended you make sure you are bringing a sufficiently new point to warrant a new answer. If you just want to bring a small precision, commenting on the answer is a better way... どうぞ宜しくね! –  Dave Jun 16 '11 at 9:58
    
I tried to fix the link to www.amazon.co.jp, but it turned out that the Stack Exchange server breaks the link by replacing www.amazon.co.jp to a strange URL which automatically redirects to amazon.com (instead of amazon.co.jp). I do not know how to fix it, so I reverted my edit. Sorry for the noise in the post history. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 16 '11 at 13:25
    
Reported the bug in meta.japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/256/…. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 16 '11 at 13:31
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I have to disagree with this answer, as it seems to imply that mediocre pitch is acceptable. The worse your pronunciation is, the greater the burden you force the poor soul who has to attempt to comprehend what you're saying. "Good" pitch should be the minimum you have, and if you want to be taken seriously, you should keep working on your pronunciation until it's reasonably close to native level. –  Derek Schaab Jun 16 '11 at 21:26
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@Derek: yes, but going by that reasoning, you could answer absolutely every "is X important in Japanese" by "Yes". I think @Axioplase and @Tsuyoshi both have a point in that 1) there is no such thing as a universal word pitch in Japanese (most words vary across regions) 2) Japanese will understand you regardless. I have yet to see somebody, no matter how off their tonic accent/pitch (or even how rudimentary their accent) be misunderstood by a Japanese. Compared to other languages, pitch just isn't that important in Japanese. –  Dave Jun 17 '11 at 0:09

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