There is a significant amount of research relating to tonogenesis -- the mechanisms by which a toneless parent language develops tone. But what about the genesis of pitch accent?

For instance, the falling tone in Middle Chinese is regularly derived from a reconstructed final *-s in Old Chinese (which is thought to have been toneless).

In historical Japanese linguistics, is pitch accent thought to have been part of the language from its earliest attested stages? Or is pitch accent thought to have arisen later?

Also, I appreciate that the realisation of pitch accent in Japanese varies by dialect. Is the pitch accent part of the "underlying form" -- that is, can the manifestations in the daughter dialects be derived regularly from rules applied to an underlying assignment of pitch accent?

  • There is some information about historical pitch accent in §7.4 of [Frellesvig, A history of the Japanese language]. As for genesis, perhaps it's better to look at better-documented / more recent examples, e.g. Shanghainese.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 18:48

1 Answer 1


Some language families (such as Chinese and Athabaskan) have visible origins for their tones - you can't reconstruct tone back to the shared proto-language, but you can reconstruct other features that later turned into tone.

Other language families (such as Bantu and Oto-Manguean) have no visible origins for their tones - you can reconstruct tone back to the proto-language, and it seems to have been there as long as anyone can tell.

As far as we know, Japonic is in the latter category. Most (if not all, I don't have as much knowledge as I'd like) Japonic languages/dialects contrast tone, and unlike with Chinese final consonants or Athabaskan glottalisation, there's no clear earlier source for tone in Japonic. Indeed, according to the most prevalent interpretation, Japonic has been losing tone contrasts over time - earlier sources (such as the Ruiju Myougishou dictionary) give more tone contrasts than any modern dialect shows (though it's not clear how much of this is actual phonemic tone contrast and how much of it is premodern linguists noting any and all tone differences - Hangeul in its original form marked all tones regardless of contrastiveness, and this could be an example of something similar). You can fairly regularly predict tone correspondences in various dialects, as well.

So tone seems to have been a part of Japonic as long as anyone can tell. Before about 200-400 AD (the earliest we can reconstruct back to), it's anyone's guess, but that's true of any feature in any language family beyond the earliest reconstructions.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. Do you have any insight into whether the various manifestations of pitch accent in the daughter dialects are regular transformations of some underlying form shared by the proto-language?
    – jogloran
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 20:24
  • They basically have to be, barring cross-dialect contamination (which does happen a lot in Japanese, though I don't know about with tones), though 'underlying' implies that those original forms are still there in the language somewhere (and they're not). I'd say they're all (mostly) regular transformations of a shared original form, rather than a shared 'underlying' form.
    – Sjiveru
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 18:35
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    Thanks. For your edification underlying form in the linguistic context actually does mean exactly what you described -- not necessarily implying the forms are still present as surface forms in the language.
    – jogloran
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 19:19
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    I think we may have a terminology miscommunication - by saying 'not present in the language somewhere', I mean they're not even present as URs. I'm trying to draw a distinction between 'diachronic shared proto-form' and 'synchronic underlying representation'.
    – Sjiveru
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 2:50

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