Pitch Accents? Where did these come from..?

While I was watching a video on Japanese phonology recently, the topic of pitch accents came up. I know about how pitch and tone can influence meaning in particular languages, but in the one and a half years I’ve been learning Japanese, I’ve never heard about the Japanese pitch accent. From what I’ve gathered, it seems to be quite a minor detail in spoken Japanese, only affecting a few words such as 橋 (bridge) and 箸 (chopsticks).

Has anyone else heard about these (probably), and if so, where did you hear about them? Was it from a textbook, or was it something you picked up on from talking to natives?

This is the video I was talking about: The Japanese Language - YouTube

(Edit: I should say that I’m not disregarding pitch accents. When it comes to the core phonetics, they aren’t as important as long/short vowels, but regardless, they are an important part of the language.)

1 Like

Yup, we were just talking in another thread about how under-taught it is despite being very important (I wouldn’t call it a minor detail by any means!) for anyone who wants to have a native-like accent.

The first three episodes of Dogen’s phonetics course is a great intro to the topic, and the whole course is available behind a paywall (it’s currently up to 22 episodes).


I’m considering starting a dedicated topic on here for anyone who wants to regularly discuss it.


I read about it somewhere before, but I figured that it can be safely ignored. There are lots of other things that will give you a distinct accent anyway.

In the video they go on shoehorning the SOV word order onto Japanese, there are probably better learning resources out there.


Japanese has pitch accent all the way through. In fact, there are dictionaries in Japanese just to show the pitches for all the words. Most language courses/teachers don’t focus on pitch accent, however, because it is usually not important to being understood like tones are in some other Asian languages (Cantonese! Vietnamese!). Also, the pitch accent used in Japanese depends on the dialect, so it’s quite variable from region to region. Most people learn Kanto-ben, or maybe Kansai-ben, but I had a friend who learned Japanese in Kyushu and it was a completely different sounding pattern.

I feel like the assumption is that there are bigger fish to fry and that the more students learn, the more they will just “fall” into the correct patterns. I’m not sure how true this is. I’ve been trying to lose my American accent in Japanese for a long time . . . :disappointed:


That’d be great, it’s definitely an overlooked aspect of Japanese.

The video I shared? Yeh, I don’t think it’s really meant for learning Japanese. It’s mainly just an overview of the language for people not too familiar with it. Obviously for anyone actually learning Japanese, they should learn pretty quickly that word order is flexible.

That’s really interesting! I’d agree that it seems like it’s just something you pick up over time though, but not before giving directions to someone, telling them to turn right and go across the chopsticks.


I don’t really see the sense in trying to learn pitch accent from abroad. Unless you’re hearing and speaking a lot of Japanese you’re never going to get it right, as understanding it is not the same as being able to use it. The time you would spend on learning pitch accent is better spent on other aspects of the language, in my opinion.


I have some hearing loss so I’m not sure how much it’d help me anyways :cry:

I’ve always wondered how deaf/hard of hearing people get by in tonal languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese. I feel like the answer can’t JUST be sign language, since lip-reading is a very important skill and I’m not sure how well tones translate to that.

If anything I think it might help me recognize Japanese puns better, and there are some great ones out there. (For a punny adventure and a heck of an education on bread around the world, I highly recommend the older anime Yakitate!! Japan.)


Me either, that’s why I learn them from Dogen and the Apple J-2-J dictionary. I just don’t have time to deal with some broad trying to teach me.


I’ve integrated it into my vocabulary learning. I learned the basic types: unaccented, or accented on certain syllables etc. Anytime i do a vocab lesson i play the audio and try and determine its pitch pronunciation. If I cant determine it from the WK audio I look it up in a pitch accent dictionary.

Sure I don’t get it right all the time but for me its like standard vocab learning. Even if I consistently get a word right on WK and KW doesn’t mean I’ll be able to produce it at speed in conversation, but at least the knowledge is there somewhere. Its the same with pitch, having a knowledge of it will at least help, even if I dont get it perfect all the time.

1 Like

I don’t understand the question. Why do you want to know where it came from? Of course it came from Japan. Why is that important?


The question was meant to be rhetorical. And the intent was more that they just cropped up out of nowhere, having never seen them being mentioned anywhere else in my studies.

1 Like

I’m pretty sure I’ve told people to “go over the chopsticks” several times before. Thank goodness for context clues. :stuck_out_tongue:

1 Like

I really like that pitch accent practice/study is becoming a more common thing now. I think it’s a very underrated part of learning Japanese.
When I was studying in Japan my school had a section of the day dedicated to just practicing pronunciation and pitch accent.
Recently in the Japanese learning community, Dogen has been gaining traction with his lessons and spreading the pitch accent gospel.


This, I can tell you, it is most definitely not.

It may be something that you, as a second language learner, can choose to ignore. But chances are most Japanese speakers that you come across will not: at best, they will quietly notice the errors you may make and choose to ignore them based on who you are.

It is true that Japanese accent is not essential. But there is growing evidence in speech research showing that suprasegmentals (the features of a spoken language that do not have to do with the individual vowel and consonant sounds, called “segments”) have a big impact on comprehensibility and foreign accentedness.

In other words, native Japanese speakers listening to you may have more trouble understanding what you say, and they will tend to perceive your Japanese as more obviously foreign, despite how good you get at grammar and pronunciation otherwise.

You may be OK with this, and indeed many people are. But you should be aware that this is not “a minor detail of spoken Japanese”, but a pretty major feature of the language.

Absolutely right: there’s two entirely different skills at play. One is the ability to hear the distinction. A different one is to be able to produce it.

You will only ever really be able to learn how to hear it by … listening to Japanese. In that, I think you are right. But you don’t have to be there for that: I try to listen to a lot of spoken Japanese radio for, among other things, this purpose (whether this is successful remains to be seen).

For producing it, other than speaking to Japanese speakers who are willing to point out when you mess up (and many won’t), shadowing is, I think, a good second best.


In the video they go on shoehorning the SOV word order onto Japanese, there are probably better learning resources out there.

I wouldn’t necessarily count that against the video. The video seems to be targeted at people who are not trying to learn to speak the language, but rather have a casual interest in languages. From this perspective, it seems very reasonable to present Japanese as an SOV language, because there is very convincing linguistic evidence that Japanese is SOV. For example, consider the following sentences (taken from Natsuko Tsujimura’s An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics:

  1. *学生が酒を3人飲んだ Note that this sentence is incorrect.
    In contrast, we have the (correct) sentences:
  2. たろうが酒を3本飲んだ
  3. 酒をたろうが3本飲んだ

Sentence 2 is obviously correct, but it is not a-priori clear why 3 is correct and 1 is not. The commonly accepted answer is that sentence 3 is actually sentence 2, but with the object moved infront of the subject. Since this happens after the quantifier was put into the sentence, the sentence remains correct (common analysis proposes that we leave a syntactic “trace” where the object was prior to movement).

In my experience, when Tae Kim says some common belief is “wrong”, what he really should be saying is that it is “not useful when teaching the language”

I didn’t phrase myself correctly. I didn’t really mean it in itself was minor, I just meant that compared to other aspects of the phonology that are taught such as long and short vowels, it seems quite minor. I’m learning Swedish which also has pitch accents, often referred to as acute and grave accents (I always knew them as acute and grave accents, I never knew they were term pitch accents until I checked Wikipedia just now), so I know they’re actually an important aspect of a language :grin:

At least with my experience with Swedish, listening has really helped finding with pitch accents, although the pitch seems a lot more pronounced than it does in Japanese. I’ll try to listen out for it more when listening to Japanese, since I’ve never actually paid attention to it…

Ignoring pitch accent is the hallmark of the foreign accent in Japanese. Every word has a defined pattern, and even though patterns vary from dialect to dialect, the odds that you’ll accidentally choose a consistent scheme without studying are slim.


Some people argue, even English and Chinese speaking Chinese people, pitch has similar importance in Chinese compared to Japanese. As in, as long as there is proper context for what you say, homophones don’t have that much of an impact on the conversation

So, going along with this topic, would there for example be different pitches for:
辺り vs 当たり ? (atari)

I feel like these two could be annoying in spoken language.

You can check that kind of thing in Japanese dictionaries. The number next to the word is the mora that has the accent. 0 means that it’s heiban, it never falls from high to low.