I've been trying to learn the pitch-accent of standard Japanese, but this is more difficult as it should be as it's hard to find good learning resources that provide proper descriptions of how the accent works. For many words, this isn't too much of a problem, as I've found that good monolingual Japanese dictionaries use numbering notation to mark the location of pitch-accent. However, dictionaries don't tend to include many compound nouns, as their meaning can readily determined through their constituent parts.

I've been trying to find what rules govern the location of pitch-accent in compound words, but have found various conflicting descriptions.

One approach says that:

If N2 is three morae long or longer, a compound noun accent falls on the initial syllable of N2; e.g. 携帯電話 is pronounced けいたいでꜜんわ.

But another approach that I have found says that:

The compound accent falls either on the rightmost, nonfinal foot of the compound, or on the original accent position of the second noun; in which case 携帯電話 would presumably be pronounced either as けいたꜜいでんわ, or else without any downstep, as 電話 is unaccented.

These two descriptions seem to be conflicting, so I'm not sure what the actual rules are here. Would anyone be able to offer any advice on this matter? Thanks!

  • The first approach gives the right answer for 携帯電話. (I have some books on this so I may try to write an answer later.) – snailboat Nov 27 '15 at 3:53
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    Lovely question. We need more about prosody here! – Darius Jahandarie Nov 27 '15 at 7:18
  • Harith Vasant: where are the two quotes drawn from? I asked pretty much this exact question last year but it wasn't resolved satisfactorily. Would love an answer! – jogloran Nov 29 '15 at 8:25
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    So I found a source on this: section 7.3 in The Phonology of Japanese by Laurence Labrune. Unfortunately, that section begins with "The accentuation of compound words constitutes one of the thorniest and most interesting issues within the domain of Japanese accentology", and then proves it by writing 32 pages on it. It all seems incredibly irregular, and I have no idea how to summarize it, but at least you can probably read that book section on Amazon if you have an account there. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 1 '15 at 2:08

A first, I write the initial word in compound nouns ''N1'', and the second word ''N2''.  

The original pitch-accent pattern of N2 governs the location of pitch-accent in compound words.

If N2 is 3 morae long or longer

(1) In case N2 has the accent-fall in the middle, or on the initial syllable of the word, the compound noun keeps the location of N2.

  • [たまご]{LHL}(卵) -> [おんせんたまご]{LHHHHHL}(温泉卵)
  • [ひこうき]{LHLL}(飛行機) -> [かみひこうき]{LHHHLL}(紙飛行機)
  • [はみがき]{LHLL}(歯磨き)it means toothpaste -> [やくようはみがき]{LHHHHHLL}(薬用歯磨き)
  • いいんかい{LHLLL}(委員会)-> よさんいいんかい{LHHHHLLL}(予算委員会)
  • [オリンピック]{LHHHLL} -> [ソルトレイクシティーオリンピック]{LHHHHHHHHHHHHHLL}

    However, some exception can be hit upon.
  • [せんげん]{LHHL}(宣言) -> [ポツダムせんげん]{LHHHHLLL}
  • [じょうけん]{LLHHL}(条件) -> [あくじょうけん]{LHHHLLL}(悪条件)
  • [なっとう]{LHHL}(納豆)-> あまなっとう{LHHLLL}(甘納豆)
  • [やきゅうじょう]{LHHHHHH}(野球場) -> [けんえいやきゅうじょう]{LHHHHHHHHHH}(県営野球場)

    There seems to be too many exceptions to call it rule.
    Some scholars or teachers may insist that it is the rule for the accent to fall on 1st syllable of N2, e.g.あくじょうけん{LHHHLLL}, and おんせんたまご{LHHHHHL} is rather exceptional.

(2) In case N2 has the accent-fall at the last syllable, or has no accent fall, the compound noun accent falls on the first syllable of N2.

  • [でんわ]{LHH}(電話)-> [けいたいでんわ]{LHHHHLL}(携帯電話)
  • [さかな]{LHH}(魚) -> こざかな{LHLL}(小魚)
  • [あたま ]{LHHL}(頭) -> いしあたま{LHHLL}(石頭)
  • [おとこ ]{LHHL}(男)-> おおおとこ{LHHLL}(大男)
  • [エアコン]{LHHH} -> たきのうエアコン{LHHHHLLL}(多機能エアコン)
  • [こうえん]{LHHH} -> こくりつこうえん{LHHHHLLL}(国立公園)

The location of pitch-accent is quite complicated because many factors have something to do with it. Moreover, many words are changing in their pitch-accent. I can hardly explain it perfectly.

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