Basics of Japanese: Japanese Pitch Accent
When you hear the word “accent,” probably many of you think of regional accents. For example, the British accent versus the American accent. However, for Japanese, regional differences are known as dialects and “accent” refers to what is known as a “pitch accent” or 高低アクセント (こうていアクセント – koutei akusento) Although the pitch accent may vary by region, this article will focus on the standard way of speaking in Tokyo known as 標準語（ひょうじゅんご – hyojungo).
What is a “pitch accent”?
The pitch accent is how hiragana/katakana homographs (words that are written the same) are verbally distinguished in Japanese. It always follows a pattern of HIGH to low or low to HIGH. In the examples contained throughout this article, “low” pitches will be in lowercase and HIGH pitches will be in uppercase.
Unlike English where words like “they’re” and “their” are pronounced the same, in Japanese these two words would likely have different pitch accents.
Note: “pitch accent” doesn’t refer to speaking in a deep, low, grumbly voice and then going to a high voice.
Why is it important to learn?
The pitch accent is often ignored when it comes to teaching Japanese in any sort of setting–classroom, online, or through textbooks. However, speaking with the correct pitch accent is an essential part to clearly and immediately getting your meaning across as well as sounding like a native. When you speak with the incorrect pitch accent (or no pitch at all, which often happens when the pitch accent’s not taught), you might even convey a different meaning from what you want, or confuse your listener! For example:
- あめがほしい (ame ga hoshii) – I want rain
- あめがほしい (ame ga hoshii) – I want candy
How to differentiate?
Looking at the example above, there’s no immediate way to tell if the second person wants rain or candy. Hand gestures, context, setting, etc. might help to convey which meaning is intended, but that’s not foolproof for every conversation. However, speaking with the correct pitch accent will show immediately what you want.
- Ame (high to low) -Rain
- aME (low to high) – Candy
And how about as a sentence?
- Ame ga hoshii – I want rain
- aME GA HOSHIi – I want candy
Mountains and Hills
You can think of the Japanese pitch accent as a series of mountains and hills to climb up and down. Sometimes they’re very steep and come back down almost immediately. Other times, they gradually build and gradually lower. Or it can be a mixture of both.
Looking at this example, you’ll notice that the phrase peaks immediately at the first sound. It starts HIGH and then everything that follows goes low.
Looking at this example, you’ll see the phrase starts low and very gradually gets higher. It peaks at the ‘shi’ of ‘hoshii’ and then drops.
Start to Listen for Pitch Accents
Now that you’re more aware of what’s going on in the background while Japanese people speak, you can practice listening and determining the pitch accents! Next time you’re watching your favorite anime, drama or movie, focus on how the words sound. Soon you’ll notice the natural up-and-down, down-and-up rhythm of the language.
Of course, being learners of the language, you won’t know the pitch accent to brand new words immediately. Fortunately, there are online dictionaries to help with this! These sites are in English, to varying degrees.