I imagine I would get an even stranger look with my slight northeastern accent. “Caw-fee” sounds weird to most of the US, never mind Japan.
Not sure about others experience who are living in Japan…but sometimes, English/English pronunciation is what is expected by the Japanese listener. They see my 白人 face and they anticipate English. Then I try to whip out my new handy-dandy 日本語 and I can see the look of confusion as they try to determine what those English words were…
Not Katakana…but this is my recent experience looking for eggs in the スーパー
Me: たまご は どこ ですか
I think I could never forget “tamago” for egg because of tamagotchi…
Had a typo there…pain in the butt switching back and forth on the keyboard.
Just out of curiosity… where in Japan are you located and when you say “たまご” which syllable do you accent?
It probably wasn’t this (and I’m not pretending to be a phonetics expert by any means) but it can be interesting to think about if pitch-accent is sometimes part of the cause of misunderstandings like this one.
I say tamago flat, according to my teacher as well… BTW I was in Yamanashi for many years, bit now back in Canada.
The English word for trousers is borrowed and used for ladies underwear, and the French word for a certain kind of ladies underwear is borrowed and used for trousers.
… But ズボン is so far from Jupon that I only know that because of Wikipedia.
Hey so yeah this is a whole huge can of worms and I definitely don’t mean to question you specifically, it’s just a topic I’m really interested in.
Since たまご and トマト have different pitch-accent patterns, its possible that a “flat” pronunciation of たまご (which should actually have a rising pattern) could confuse a Japanese speaker (and that doesn’t discount the confusion of a westerner speaking japanese either).
Anyway, check out this video (I’ve cued it right to the relevant discussion), which is one of the sources from where I’m getting this from (again, I could be wrong I’m just interested in the discussion!)
I started that video and had a hard time stopping. Really interesting, although it did make me feel like crying.
I’ve got bigger tamago to fry at the moment…lol, not saying I disagree after listening to this, but I still get hospital and hair salon screwed up, so I’ll kick this can down the road a bit.
It’s hard to tell exactly what explained the confusion in that case. If anything, intonation should have been a distinguishing factor rather than a cause for confusion, since 「たまご」 is unaccented (which I guess is what @Expat meant) and 「トマト」 is head-accented. I suppose that vowel quality and VOT* differences between the [g] and the [t] might have helped as well. But it’s impossible to say without hearing how it sounded (source: this used to be my day-job).
In other news, the linked video was good, but I think describing the unaccented pattern as “rising” is probably even worse than describing it as “flat”.
The fact that it is “rising” is only because of a constraint in standard Japanese against the first and second mora having the same tone, so if the first is high, the second must be low (and vice-versa). The defining characteristic is not that it rises, but that it doesn’t fall.
In other words, in Japanese a rise in intonation is not as relevant as the fall, and it is the position of the fall that marks the position of the accent. If the intonation does not fall (= if it is flat), the word is unaccented (like 「たまご」).
Bonus: A note on the relevant cues for Japanese accent
Since you said this topic interested you: in a later part of the video (6:20~) they say that “the other [accent] patterns have both changes in pitch and a prominent accent”.
It is hard to tell what he means by “a prominent accent”, since “accent” in this sense (as opposed to “a foreign accent”) is largely synonymous with “prominence”. But regardless, this is confusing at best, since in Japanese the only relevant cue for lexical prominence (= accent) is pitch. Other available cues (like duration, loudness, and vowel quality, which are all features used in English) are not relevant even if they change.
Some of those actually change in unison involuntarily, such as loudness and pitch. But the fact that they change, and that the change is noticeable for say an English speaker (for whom they are relevant) does not mean they are relevant in Japanese.
VOT (voice-onset time) is the lag between voicing and the release of stop sounds. It’s the feature that differentiates between voiced, voiceless, and aspirated sounds.
As an example, I find that Japanese speakers often mishear my 「た」 as 「だ」, such that distinguishing between 「退学」 and 「大学」 (both unaccented) is a pain in the ass.
I know that, in a YouTube video or something, if an English speaking Frenchman said “coup de grâce” the correct way half of the comments would be “it’s coup de graah” and the other half would be “what was that word you said at x:xx?”
Nothing sounds more weird than saying an English word in the middle of a sentence full of Japanese. Katakana words continue the flow of Japanese, and if you throw in “toilet” where you should say トイレ then it just sounds wrong.
Also, katakana words are not direct translations of just English words. イギリス comes from Portuguese I believe, so not all American-English words will magically translate into katakana versions of themselves.
Correct, and some English loan words sound nothing like their English pronunciations such as エール for yell, etc…
That happens quite often when you switch between similar languages, too. It is a pretty natural thing.
Hey, thanks for this detailed explanation. I would have been wiser to pose my original statement as a question given that I am only in the very beginning of learning about this topic. What was the day-job you mentioned?
I took the liberty of sharing our conversation with Dogen, the maker of that video, because I was really curious what he would say. He came back right away with the answer below. In reading his response I realize that I probably shouldn’t have cued the video at halfway through, as there are some clarifications at the beginning that address what you mentioned in the “bonus” part. That video was part of a basic overview to a phonetics course that is now over twenty episodes. Anyway, it’s a great topic and I’m hoping it will work its way into beginner materials more so that Japanese learners will start to focus on it earlier.
Hi Chris! Thanks for the link. JJatria seems very well versed in Japanese phonetics; I actually think every point he made is true! With regards to the bit about using the term ‘rising’ to describe heiban words: When I use the term ‘rising’ in this video, I do so after saying two heiban words that are both two mora. Jjatria is correct in saying that using the word ‘rising’ can be dangerous way to describe heiban words in general, as the change in pitch between the first two mora isn’t massive (especially when compared with the change in pitch in a downstep, as I describe around the 5 minute mark in lesson 5), and there is little to no pitch-change after the initial pitch-change. That said I do think it is accurate to describe the change in pitch between the first and second mora as ‘rising’, and many of the resources that I reference use similar terms, be they Japanese or English resources. It’s true that the pitch doesn’t fall, but I don’t necessarily believe this means it’s bad to describe the change in pitch between the first and second mora as rising. Definitely see what JJatria is saying though. With regards to the ‘unaccented’ bit, Jjatria is correct again, and I actually address this video around 5:10: “They [heiban verbs] have rising pitch accent patterns. The thing they don’t have, however, is the dramatic downstep, which is the 'accent in Japanese.” They don’t have the dramatic downstep (accent in Japanese) = They are accent-less words. I try to emphasize this point again at 8:30 in the video: “‘There is no accent in that word’ because, as I just explained, though there are changes in pitch, there is no accent on this word.” Finally, with regards to the ‘prominent accent’ bit: I can see how my wording would seem strange for anyone well versed in Japanese linguistics, and this is why I begin the lesson with a phrase along the lines of ‘don’t worry too much about the various terms used here, we will save terminology for later lesson’. When I say ‘changes in pitch and a prominent accent’ I mean to say ‘low to high pitch change, as well as the dramatic high to low pitch change’. I didn’t address this as I knew I would be addressing it specifically in lesson 5—I was trying to make an argument geared towards beginners more than anything else, which is why it sounds confusing to people already well versed in Japanese pitch-accent. Again, this is why I told listeners not to worry too much about the terminology of the lesson, and to try and concentrate on the basic argument.
Thanks for chasing this up! And thanks to Dogen also for being a good sport and replying in so much detail to both of us.
I agree. But in my research (see below) I found that most of the resistance to teaching this comes from teachers. Students (in formal learning environments) will study whatever they are given (although they will of course prefer certain topics). So efforts like this should really target teachers, to convince them that it is important and relevant, and to provide them with tools and methodologies to do so effectively.
Currently, there are some tools out there, but there is no clearly established curriculum. Most teachers prefer to focus on the things that they consider to be essential for comprehension, and the teachers that are interested in teaching it tend to lack the tools. The fact that normally native speakers have the worst intuitions about their own languages doesn’t help when those teachers are native.
I sympathise with this argument. Specially if making videos on Youtube, it is hard to tailor what you say for all audiences. But I feel that we do a disservice to our audience when we use language that is not only simplified, but conflicts with the more accurate terminology.
Ideally, beginners will eventually become proficient, and will learn the differences between say fundamental frequency and pitch, or between mora and syllable. So it would be better if we make materials that, while using a simplified vocabulary, can later be inflated and still make sense.
I see now what he was aiming at by making a distinction between “prominent accent” and “pitch change”, but that distinction stops being informative as soon as you learn why pitch changes are important, or what an accent is, or what is called “prominence” (spoiler alert: pitch changes are important because they are perceptually salient and make certain parts of the speech prominent, which can mark those parts as accented).
He could have said “All accent patterns in Tokyo Japanese change pitch at the beginning, but unlike heiban, the other patterns are accented because they also have a pitch fall” (or something like this). I don’t think we need to have a trade off between precision and a simplified language.
Yeah, we agree there. Just to clarify: it is heiban that is not a rising tone.
I did my PhD in Speech and Hearing Sciences, and my dissertation was on the perception of Japanese and Spanish lexical prominence. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a “day-job”, but until last year that’s what I did 150% of the time. Nowadays, I’ve moved to slightly different fields.
And textbook-writers have the same issue! For me being a self-learner it’s super surprising to get through entire beginner textbook before realizing that they made either no mention at all of pitch accent (Genki 1 and 2 don’t talk about pronunciation at all as far as I can tell), or gave it the kind of brushing-off treatment that is so misleading. For example – I came to Japanese through Mangajin and my first textbook was their Japanese the Manga Way, a great book in many ways but a book which makes the following statement in its first pages:
Japanese words are spoken with essentially even stress, without any particular syllable being spoken more strongly than any other. Slight changes of pitch do provide a kind of “pitch accent” within words, but they are usually not essential to the meaning. Beginners will do best to strive for a relatively flat stress and tone.
Re-reading that paragraph now I realize that I had really internalized that questionable advice early on. I can’t see any reason not to learn about pitch-accent patterns from the very beginning so that you can learn them with the vocabulary whenever possible. I can’t understand why they would make this claim – seems like it would have been better if they left it out completely!
I wish I could share the full Dogen course here – but it’s (understandably) behind his Patreon paywall. I do believe he’s working on creating a version of that kind of curriculum right now, which is exciting.
Just curious, if you had to point a self-learner to the materials you think are best for learning pitch-accent and developing a native-like accent, what if anything would you recommend?
Well, this really isn’t my expertise at all, so I can answer as a fellow learner who is a kindred spirit in terms of trying to come to grips with Japanese intonation.
I think a combination of awareness and good role models are probably the best.
By awareness I mean that you should not be satisfied with learning what a word means, or how you write it, but also ask yourself if it is accented (and where, if so).
By good role models I mean that you won’t get anywhere without listening to how this mess sounds. Because one thing is learning the intonation of words in isolation, which is all well and good. But another entirely different thing is to learn how to those accent patterns interact with one another when you are building a sentence.
I try to listen to as much Japanese as I can. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and some of them are in Japanese. I put some up on the ultimate resource list. I find that listening to those and shadowing is a good practice.
That said, intonation is still by far the thing that I struggle with the most.
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