Need help with Pitch Accents

So, I’ve somewhat recently heard about these “Pitch Accent” things, and I’m not quite sure I really understand it.
I look around for information, and I’m seeing things like, “It’s either the first is low and the second is high, or the other way around. And then once it’s low it doesn’t get high again,” or about the different patterns (which basically just seems to be getting in more depth to the previous).
But I feel my problem is a bit more fundamental. Specifically, I don’t quite get the difference between things like “low” and “high.” Can anyone explain this for me?

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There are some threads here that I think are worth reading through:

After reading those (and the resources linked to in them), I think you’ll have a much better understanding of Japanese pitch accent. :slight_smile:


I actually have already read those threads, but I still gave them another once-over.
Again, I feel my problem is more fundamental, probably something that most people just have no problem at all, and thus doesn’t seem to appear in those threads.
Like, it seems that they’re about “where to use high accent/pitch/whatever” and “where to use low accent/pitch/whatever,” and I get that. I kind of understand that. But it isn’t really useful for me, if I can’t tell if I actually am using high or low pitch, regardless of whether I’m supposed to be using it.


[I’ve got an updated (and hopefully clearer) version of my post here:]

It is hard to ask a question if you don’t know what you don’t know! Imagine asking how a car engine works if you don’t know anything about cars. And more likely, many people are in the same boat but also lack the ability to ask about what they don’t understand regarding Japanese pitch accent. How can people talk about something if they don’t have any shared knowledge about that topic?

I’ll try to break it down with my limited knowledge of Japanese pitch accent. If you get stuck, point to where you get stuck and we’ll break it down further.

Before we begin, let's understand the difference between phonetics and phonology (at a very basic level). When we talk about the phonology, we're talking about properties of the speech system. When we talk about phonetics, we're talking about pronunciation.

In English, we have the word “bottle”. The word is encoded as having a ‘t’ sound in the middle. It’s a property of the word. That’s part of the phonology of the word. But when it’s pronounced, there are many different ways it could be pronounced. In my dialect, it’s generally what we call a ‘flap’–throwing the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. A very different ‘t’ sound than the ‘t’ sound in ‘talk’. We could represent it with this symbol: ‘ɾ’. But it can also be pronounced with a ‘proper’ ‘t’, made by pressing the tongue behind the teeth. It can also be pronounced with a glottal stop ‘?’ The same sound as in ‘uh-oh’. So ‘botl’, ‘boɾl’, and ‘bo?l’ are all acceptable English pronunciations of the word “bottle”. These variations are all acceptable phonetic variants of the word “bottle”. They are properties of the pronunciation of the word “bottle”.

Does that make sense? When we talk about phonology, we’re talking about abstract properties. When we talk about phonetics, we’re talking about physical properties.

To talk about pitch accents, we’ll start with a discussion of the phonology. If that makes sense, we’ll move on to the phonetics.

Also to begin with. We can't talk about pitch accents without talking about pitch. Pitch is the fundamental frequency of the vibration of the vocal folds. We have fine-tuned automatic control over the pitch of our voice. It generally falls in the range of 50 to 500 hz. Men generally have lower pitch and lower pitch range than women due to having a longer oral cavity, but there are also differences in pitch that are cultural driven (French women were found to have higher pitch than American women).

When you sing, you change the pitch of your voice to hit particular notes. In English, to ask a question, you raise your pitch at the end of a sentence. When excited or angry, you may say a whole sentence with higher-than-normal pitch. To make a statement, you gradually lower and level off your pitch.

Confusingly, ‘pitch accent’ is used in two different ways. When talking about word-level phonology, ‘pitch accent’ refers to a system like Japanese where words or syllables are marked with an accent in the head of the speaker. When talking about pronunciation, ‘pitch accent’ just means ‘pitch movement’. Stressed syllables in English generally carry a ‘pitch accent’ (a pitch movement). So watch out for that.

Pitch accent in Japanese is not unlike Chinese tone or pitch in English stress–all involve modulating the speaker’s pitch/F0, however, these pitch manipulations manifest differently in each language and are used for different purposes.

In Chinese, each syllable has a “tone value” (the number of possible tones depends on the variety of Chinese we’re talking about–eg. 4 for mandarin). Each tone is a different kind of pitch movement. High flat pitch, falling pitch, rising pitch, low flat pitch, etc.

In English, each syllable has a stress status (stressed or unstressed). Multi-syllabic words can carry multiple stresses, but only 1 primary stress. A pitch accent falls on a word relative to the location of a stressed syllable (but generally on the syllable with primary stress). In English, the lack of accent is low pitch and an accent tends to be high pitch. English pitch accents are peaky. A pitch accent generally causes the speaker’s pitch to jump up to a high value and then drop down again. English syllables are structured in sequences of accented (A) and unaccented (U) syllables like AUAUAUAUAUA, so if you look at the pitch accent sequence in English it’s just bouncing up and down. Consider the word “Apalachicola”, pronounced:

Side note: English pitch can be hard to hear. English stress also manifests in vowel quality (accented syllables have clearly pronounced vowels, the vowel in ‘uhhhh’ can always replace the vowel in unaccented syllables “A.puh.LA.chuh.CO.luh”) and in duration–stressed syllables are longer than unstressed syllables. You can more easily hear stress if you exaggerate the word as if surprised–this also is a way to clearly see the one syllable with primary stress–marked here in bold. “A.puh.LA.chuh.COOOO.luh!?!?!?!” “CAN.dy!??!” “E.le.VA.tor!!??!”

In Japanese, each mora has an accent status (high or low). When we talk about ‘status’ here, we’re talking about a property of word and not about it’s pronunciation. Each word can either have one accented mora (H) or no accent (no H). This contrasts with Chinese where in theory all tones can appear in all/most combinations (I don’t speak Chinese) and in English where multisyllabic words must have at least one accent and can have multiple pitch accents (‘university’ has stress on both the first syllable and the third. And for the two stress locations one or both may carry a pitch accent). So in Japanese, words tend to have one high plateau and are low before and after the plateau (more on this later), unlike English which is peaky as discussed in the English section. From my zero experience with Chinese, I would guess that Chinese can’t be described as either peaky or plateauy.

In each language, different stress/tone patterns results in different words. In Chinese: ma1, ma2, ma3, ma4: “mother”, “hemp”, “horse”, and “scold”. In English ob.JECT (verb) vs OB.ject (noun). In Japanese: hashi, ha’shi, hashi’ with the patterns LL, HL, and LH, meaning “edge”, “chopsticks”, and “bridge” respectively. In all of these languages, you can generally survive without using tones/accents properly–context helps a lot in disambiguating meaning–but #1 you’ll be marked as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language properly and #2 you may encounter communication problems.

Ok, if you don’t understand that, stop and ask questions. If you do understand that, then there is the matter of pronunciation.

[I’m a bad Japanese student who doesn’t bother with pitch, so I don’t have a lot of personal experience and someone might have a better description] There are basically three pronunciation patterns: 1) accent initial words, 2) non-initially accented words, and 3) accentless words. For the first case, the phonetic pattern is HLLLLL, the second pattern is LHHHHHHL, and the third pattern is LHHHHH. Here my use of H and L are different.

To be clear, the use of L and H here in the phonetics section is different than in the phonology section–it is confusing, but you’ll see it elsewhere, so I used it here too.

The accent status of a word in Japanese is not just a matter of putting an accent on a given mora (which is, on the other hand, how English stress works). There are many different accent patterns for words in Japanese but there are only three broad differences in how words in Japanese are pronounced.

So in Japanese a word with an initial accent starts high and then drops and stays low. For a word that has a post-initial accent, the word starts low, rises to meet the accented mora and then stays high, until the end of the word when it drops. For words that are unaccented, they start low and then become high with the pitch staying high until the end of the word.

For a concrete example the word ha’shi (HL) would be /pronounced/ with the pitch contour: HL; and the word hashi’ (LH) would be pronounced with the pitch contour: LHL; and the word hashi (LL) would be pronounced with the pattern LH.

Does that description make sense? Everyone please ask questions (to the community) or post corrections.


Great post, for my part it helped me a lot but I don’t think that’s what DreamsDragon was asking for. I think he was saying that he can’t feel the difference between low pitch/high pitch voice


This seems like something that won’t be resolved by discussing it through text. You need to ask your Japanese teacher or a native in person or something.

I felt Dogon’s video series with it’s visualizations help make it clearer what is going on. I agree, you need feedback from someone to verify that you’re doing it right, but I think on one’s own, imitation or speech shadowing works well:

If you can imitate the speaker while they are talking your voice should be doing the same thing as them. Like singing. If someone in a group is singing off key, everyone can tell. If you’re imitating someone’s speech, it should be immediately clear if something is off, even if you can’t say exactly what it is.

While I do my lessons, I try to imitate the words that are pronounced for me.

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I suggest you consult the introduction chapter to the book “Japanese: The Spoken Language” (handily available legally online), along with the audio material (also available legally online). Cf. esp. the “accent contrasts”.

Dogens course is also very good! I used both resources.

You can add audio to an Anki card, and record yourself (ctrl-v) and listen to the audio ( r) and your recording (v) and sharpen your tounge.

Good luck!

Yeah, YoDawg is right about my problem.
The “Talk to a Native” and/or “record yourself and just compare by ear” are solutions that, while probably the best coure of action by far, I was sort of dreading. Just because I don’t really know anybody from Japan (and my mercurial sleep cycle probably not being ideal for online correspondence) and because I don’t feel my own judgments on my own speaking skills will be the most accurate.
I might take a second look into Dogen as well. Initially I kind of brushed him off, because his first three lessons (the free ones) felt a bit like, “Yes, here are all the reasons you should learn about this topic, which I’ll be talking about next episode.

Thanks for all the responses.

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