Pronunciation III 日本語の発音③

第3課: Pronunciation III: Pitch Accent & Devoicing

In our third installation on Japanese pronunciation, we will be going over two important features about it that make the language sound uniquely Japanese: pitch accent and vowel devoicing.

Standard Japanese Pitch Accent 標準語のアクセント

Rather than placing more stress on one syllable than another like in English, a word can have one or none of its morae accented. An accented mora will have a high pitch and then be followed by a pitch drop on the next mora. 

Although other dialects have different pitch-accent systems, learning Standard Japanese pitch accent will improve your fluency and improve your pronunciation scores if you’re studying at school. In reality, though, no one would misunderstand you mean if you mess up the pitch of a word. So, it is not crucial that you master pitch accent right off the bat.   

The Accent Types アクセントの型

There are four patterns in the Standard Japanese pitch-accent system.

  1. Accent on the first mora: The pitch starts high then drops on the next mora, leveling out. 
  2. Accent in the middle: The pitch rises, reaches a maximum at the accented mora(e), then drops. 
  3. Accent on the last mora: The first mora of the word is low and all other morae are high. The pitch drop occurs on whatever is attached to the word. 
  4. No accented mora: The first mora of the word is low and all other morae are high and pitch remains high on whatever is attached to the word.

For words whose patterns are 2-4, the word starts with an initial rise in pitch. How these patterns manifest can best be visualized when considering how many morae are actually in a phrase. 

Chart Note: Low-pitched morae are marked with a grave accent (`) and high-pitched morae are marked with an acute accent (´).

Patterns 1 Mora 2 Morae  3 Morae  4 Morae Contour
 ①Accent on First Mora(Atamadakagata 頭高型)   H(L)
[ámè] (rain)
[déǹkì ] (electricity)
    ②Accent in Middle
 (Nakadakagata 中高型)  
   ∅   ∅   LHL(L)
(to demolish)
[shìómìzù] (salt water) 
   /( ̄)\
   ③Accent on Last Mora(Odakagata 尾高型)   ∅   LH(L)
[shìká ↓] (deer)
[hàdómé ↓]
(little sister) 
   / ̄(\)
   ④No Accent(Heibangata 平板型)    L(H)
[kà] (mosquito)
mé ] (candy) 
nsétsú] (syllable)
   / ̄( ̄)

※The Japanese names for these pitch accent patterns are what is mentioned in parentheses in the first column.

※For longer words that follow Pattern 2, the fall of the the pitch may not always fall on the second to last mora.

Distinguishing Homophones with Pitch

The four pitch patterns discussed do, in fact, help in distinguishing homophones (words that sound the same). To visualize this, the chart below lists groups of similar sounding words that are told apart by their pitch accent. 

①頭高型 ②中高型 ③尾高型 ④平板型
[ákà] (red)   [àká] ↓ (dirt/filth)
     [ákì] (fall/autumn)      [àkí] ↓ (weariness)    [àkí] (vacancy)
   [ásà] (morning)   [àsá] ↓ (hemp)
   [íchì] (location/market)   [ìchí]  ↓ (one) 
   [ímà] (now)   [ìmá] ↓ (living room)
   [úmì] (ocean)   [ùmí] ↓ (pus)
    [ékì] (train station/liquid)    [èkí] (gain)
   [kákì] (oyster)   [kàkí] ↓ (hedge)   [kàkí] (persimmon)
   [kí] (tree/yellow)    [kì] (spirit/qi)
[sákè] (salmon)   [sàké] ↓ (alcohol)
   [háshì] (chopsticks)    [hàshí] ↓ (bridge)    [hàshí] (edge/start)
   [hánà] edge    [hàná]↓(flower)   [hàná] (nose/snivel)
   [níhòǹ ] (two cylindrical things)   [nìhóǹ ] (Japan)

※↓ indicates that pitch will drop on the first mora of whatever attaches to the word. 

※If nothing follows, words of Pattern 3 and Pattern 4 will sound identical. 

※ [kákì] is an extreme homophone. Meaning, it has even more definitions not listed in the chart that exist for them–“yellow,””period,””season,”etc.  Such homophones will always have separate Kanji spellings. 

Different Words, Same Pitch アクセント区別の付かない同音語

While pitch accent does help distinguish homophones, that does not mean words with the same sounds must be distinguishable by pitch. It is actually very common for homophones, especially extreme homophones, to follow the same pitch pattern. Even for two, three-morae word pairs, it is fairly common for the same pitch pattern to be present throughout. 

[áì] (love)   [áì] (indigo) ①
    [kàrá]↓ (shell)    [kàrá] ↓ (empty) ③
   [sòkó] (there)    [sòkó] (bottom)  ④
   [tákò] (kite)   [tákò] (octopus)    [tákò] (callus) ①

Vowel Devoicing 母音の無声化

When a vowel is devoiced, it loses the vibration in the vocal cords associated with creating a vowel. 

The vowels /i/ and /u/ often become devoiced when between or after the consonants /k/, /s/, /t/, and /p/. This is especially the case in low-pitched morae and in fast speech. When a vowel is devoiced in Japanese, it is either hardly there so long as the mouth is still articulated to pronounce it or deleted entirely. Deletion is most likely with the morae /shi/, /chi/, /hi/, /su/, /tsu/, or /fu/. Devoicing does not occur in single-mora words and it is more prevalent in male speech. 

Chi̥kara (power)    Ku̥sa (grass)   Su̥ki (to like/gap/plough)   Tsu̥ki (moon)
   Ki̥ku (chrysanthemum)    Atsu̥ (pressure)   Su̥kii (skiing)   Ki̥kichigai (mishearing)

Notation Note: ◌̥ indicates a devoiced vowel.