Voracious Vernacular

What a Pitch!

By Alexander Martin

Hello and welcome back! We warmed up last month by shedding some light on the origins of the Japanese writing system. Let’s keep that momentum going by diving into a subject of a slightly more technical nature!

This month I’d like to spend some time talking about pitch.

Unless you’re sealing your model Viking ship from leaks, you probably think of pitch as the accent or inflection added to sounds.

Not that shipbuilding is a bad hobby or anything.

Tone is the use of pitch (highness or lowness of a sound) to distinguish or inflect words.

Japanese is considered a pitch accent language (高低アクセント). This means that by and large, the distinctive tones that make up the pronunciation of a word are restricted to one or maybe two syllables (read: morae/kana).

In contrast, a tonal language such as standard Chinese can have independent tones for each syllable! While Japanese can have high, low, or no stress, some languages, such as Cantonese, can have as many as nine.

Below is an example of possible pitches in Mandarin Chinese.

Download File

This was all I could think of.

When we can’t listen to examples, we show pitch accent and tone with marks like these:

Mandarin Chinese pitch accents

Since Japanese uses only high and low pitches, these can appear as such:

No, you cant click on the audio button.

The above mark indicates that the first syllable is accented. Accent pitches can also be indicated by a superscript (ꜜ), as shown in the examples below.

Are we confused yet?[/caption

Question: Why do we care about pitch in our study of Japanese?
–Pitch accent serves to distinguish words between most Japanese dialects.

Dialects of Japan by pitch accent shamlessly ripped from Wiki Commons

In Japanese, about 80 percent of words have an evenly rising pitch. The other 20 percent have a drop in pitch, or downstep, between syllables (or before a particle).

Dialect aside, without proper word pitch or context, listeners can be confused by your pronunciation. To provide a example in English, think of refuse (deny) vs refuse (garbage). If you don’t stress properly, the meaning is different.

Let’s look at a few examples:

1. はし

Accent on first syllable Accent on second syllable Accentless


chopsticks /hasiꜜ/


bridge /hasi/




2. いま

Accent on first syllable Accent on second syllable
now              /imaꜜ/ living room
           high-low         low-high


3. かき

Accent on first syllable    Accent on second syllable Accentless
/kaꜜki/ 牡蠣 oyster    /kakiꜜ/ fence /kaki/ persimmon
   high–low     low–high


4. さけ

sake /saꜜke/
salmon /sake/(accentless) alcohol, sake


Now that you’re familliar with the pitch accents, listen to the audio file below and see if you can hear the differences.

Download File

So how do you know what to use?

You can’t go wrong with the Tokyo Yamanote dialect. This is considered standard Japanese, and you probably learned this dialect (pitch accent) in your studies already.

Broadcasting careers such as newscasting and reporting require the use of this accent to ensure audiences can understand the material. As a result, professionals in these fields go to schools to learn or relearn the proper way to speak.

I imagine the tests are very hard

While using the improper pitch for a word won’t keep your coworkers or friends from being able to understand you most of the time, it is important to try and mirror the pronunciation of your coworkers. By memorizing the pitch of words, you improve your mastery of the spoken language.

Pitch accent is actually a rather complex subject. While individual words can have pitch accents that are easy to memorize, these can actively be changed by the addition of particles. On top of that, a verb’s inflection can change depending on its conjugation.

For example, with the word たべる, a normal stress on べ  changes to a stress on  た when it becomes たべて!

If you would like more information on proper pitch accents, I highly recommend an app by NHK Broadcasting called NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典 新版 (Nihongo hatsuon akusento jiten).

It is available on Android and iTunes and contains a complete and precise dictionary of words with pitch markers as well as pronunciations (in standard Yamanote) read by professional broadcasters. While the app is not cheap, I have purchased it myself and find it very useful for differentiating between homonyms and learning how to pronounce a new word for the first time.

Hope you learned something! See ya next month.


One thought on “What a Pitch!

  1. Pingback: June Vol. 1 – Good Morning Aomori

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