Speaking Japanese language properly can be quite tricky for a native-English speaker because of the lack of stress accent, and a vague, often overlooked pitch accent. My wife and kids often tease me about my accent when I speak Japanese, so I have learned this hard way. Allow me to share some tips.
Japanese language, when heard by an English speaker, tends to sound very robotronic. Each hiragana syllabary is ONE, EQUAL beat in Japanese like so:
do-u-mo a-ri-ga-to-u go-za-i-ma-su
“thank you very much”
However, when a native English speaker pronounces it, it often sounds something like:
DOmo ariGAtou goZAImaSU
This can be hard (possibly even grating) for a native Japanese speaker to follow, so it helps to resist this urge to stress accents and smooth out the beats in each word. A combination of getting enough exposure to Japanese conversation, and some good ol’ practice certainly help.
But that alone isn’t quite enough, because Japanese also has a subtle pitch accent.
To the casual Japanese student, it is not obvious what the difference in intonation between 切る (kiru, “to cut”) and 着る (kiru, “to wear”) but a native speaker will know the difference. This is similar to how English native speakers can hear the difference between decent and descent, desert and dessert. Japanese dictionaries do not specify what the proper intonation is either, since different dialects will use different pitch accent, and thus there’s no consensus.¹
However, even with “standard” Tokyo speech, the pitch accent is there, and it’s very helpful to be aware of it. Even better to familiarize yourself with it. If you listen to Japanese conversations enough, particularly if you have a background in music, you’ll start to develop an intuitive sense of pitch accent, but if you’re tone-deaf like me, this can take a while.
Using the examples above, the verb 切る sounds like ki‾ru while 着る sounds like kiru‾ . By this, I mean that the pitch is a bit higher in the first syllable of 切る, but higher on the second syllable of 着る. Other common examples:
- Compare ha‾shi (箸 “chopsticks”) versus hashi‾ (橋 “bridge”)
- The word for now (今) is pronounced i‾ma
- The word for afternoon (午後) is pronounced go‾go
- The word for seed (種) is pronounced ta‾né
- Compare ka‾ki (牡蠣 “oyster”) with kaki‾ (柿, persimmon)
- The word for “key” (鍵) is pronounced kagi‾
- Finally, the adjective for interesting (面白い) is pronounced omoshiro‾ii
Note that there is no stress accent, just a pitch accent. This difference can be hard for native English speakers to grasp, but in essence every syllable is one equal beat, yet the pitch will rise and fall sometimes.
Also, occasionally the pitch accent is lower too as in the word arigatō above, whereby the ga is a bit lower: ariga＿tou.
By and large, the pitch accent in Japanese, coupled with the lack of stress accent, isn’t really that hard to pick up. The biggest challenge is that it’s seldom explained or expressed in writing, dictionaries or anywhere. It’s something that you, the language student, have to attune to, and learn to imitate.
But like G.I.Joe said: Knowing is half the battle.²
¹ For example, my wife’s extended family in Tochigi Prefecture pronounces the word for “mother” (okāsan お母さん) with a pitch accent in a different syllable than the standard Tokyo dialect. Most other things are basically equal, just where pitch accent falls. Apart from local slang and terminology, this is frequently what separates most Japanese dialects from one another.
² Porkchop sandwiches!
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