Why study accent from the beginning?Once you understand how to make all the sounds in Japanese, you might think it's easy to learn new words by seeing the romanization or kana for the word and sounding it out. I mean, you're saying all the right sounds, so you're saying the word correctly, right?
Sadly, this is a big mistake that a lot of people make learning Japanese -- even in the classroom, I find it rare that pitch-accent pattern is stressed as an important part of learning Japanese. Even classrooms that use textbooks that explain pitch-accent before the first vocabulary lesson seem to ignore this in the beginning.
The problem here is that language is learned through practice. Have you ever found that your whole life you've been pronouncing a word in your native language wrong, or even calling something by the wrong word? Think of how hard it was to change that habit. In fact, some people never change the habit because it's just too hard to undo something that now comes so naturally.
If you ignore Japanese accent, you're going to be essentially locking in a thick foreign accent for a long time to come, and the longer you go ignoring it, the harder it's going to be to correct it, to the point where you just may never be able to.
For example, I didn't learn the proper accent for many words when I first started studying. I've been speaking Japanese for over 10 years now, and I still say 出来る wrong almost every time. Because classroom focuses on things like word choice, no one ever corrected me, and I didn't realize I was saying it wrong until much later. Even now, the habit is very hard to break.
Luckily, Japanese accept pattern is not that difficult. It's quite different from English, but you can master it with just a little practice. Once you get the basic idea, you'll pick up the accent of new words the same way you do picking up new words in your native language -- without even really thinking about the accent, because it comes naturally.
The importance of accent in languageIn English, we use a stress accent. That means in each word, one or more syllables gets "stressed." These stressed syllables are the loudest, clearest, and longest syllables in the word.
Think of the English word autobiography. Say it aloud, or listen to a native speaker say it aloud if you're not a native speaker.
Notice how you say AutobiOgraphy, with the letters I capitalized getting a bit of extra 'oomph.' The rest of the syllables in the word seem to fall around it, either trailing away from the stressed syllables, or leading up to the stressed syllables.
If you were to mix up the stress syllables, you'd barely even be able to understand the word (if you could understand it at all).
And not just understanding, the meaning of a word can change based simply on how you accent the word. In English, we have many cases where two words have the same sounds and the same spelling, but the accent is the only difference between them.
For example, we call fruits and veggies like what you buy at the supermarket as produce. When you create something, like for example a film, you produce it. While we spell both words as 'produce' and they both have the same phonetic sounds, they are two different words and the difference between them is how we accent them.
If you're not pronouncing things with the right accent in English, you can make your speech incomprehensible or misleading. It severely hinders your ability to communicate.
How Japanese pitch accent worksUnlike English, Japanese doesn't have stress syllables. Japanese words are divided into mora, which are very similar to syllables, but all mora in generally are pronounced for the same length of time with the same amount of force.
Instead of stressing syllables, Japanese accent relies on pitch. It's not like Chinese in which individual syllables rise and fall as you say them -- instead, it's more like music, where each mora is like a note that you 'sing,' and the next mora can be lower or higher in pitch. Of course, you don't need to pronounce your words in tune, just make sure they rise and fall in the right places.
In English, we use pitch to change types of utterances.
For example, let's say your friend calls you on the phone and asks you what you're doing. You're at the barber shop, and you answer to your friend:
Getting a haircut.
Now, on the other hand, let's say you called your friend and you hear scissors and trimmers clipping and buzzing in the background, and you knew their hair was getting long, so you take a guess and ask them:
Getting a haircut?
Notice how despite the fact that these use all the same sounds, the way you say them is different. You let your sentence 'fall' in pitch to make a statement, but the final word rises in pitch instead when you want to ask a question.
This is just an example of how pitch can change meaning in English. Japanese pitch accent doesn't work this way, but the pitch and accent are still just as important to Japanese as pitch and stress are to English.
Three word-accent patternsTo put it simply, when you speak Japanese, you will rise and fall in pitch based on the words you are saying. Each word has an accent pattern, in which every mora of the word will either be low pitch, high pitch, or accented. When you get to a 'low' mora, you'll drop your pitch, and when you get to a 'high' mora, you'll raise your pitch. There are also 'accented' mora which will be particularly higher in pitch, then immediately drop down.
You don't have to worry about each mora individually -- if you have a bunch of high mora in a row, for example, you just say them all at the same pitch. You don't have to say each one higher than the last. The same thing with low mora. Pretty much you just look for changes in the pattern, then switch between high and low.
In practice, you don't want to sound like a robot with just two tones. Overall, entire sentences will fall from beginning to end, just like English statements, but the pitch changes are just relative to however your pitch is at the moment.
Words will either be completely unaccented, or they'll have an accent on the first mora, or they'll have an accent on one of the later mora.
When saying words alone:
- Unaccented words start with a low pitch on the first mora and then the rest of the mora are high pitch.
- Words with the first mora accented will start with a high pitch and then the rest of the mora are low pitch.
- Words with the accented mora in the middle start with a low mora on the first pitch (though this "low" mora here is actually just unaccented), then all are high until the accented mora, which is the final high one, and then they all are low after that.
- Because the first mora in a word with the accent in the middle is unaccented, it will "absorb" the high pitch of an unaccented word before it. Since an unaccented word just continues to be high with no ended, if the next word has a middle accent, the first mora will just stay high instead of dropping down.
- When more than one unaccented word is strung together, you'll still drop down for the first mora, as it has an actual "low" accent instead of being unaccented like the previous example. This sounds confusing but once you start doing it, it will seem natural.
- Certain words can alter the accent of the words around them. Like some words will demand that the words leading up to them all stay in high accent. Luckily these pertain to certain grammatical structures and you will easily learn them as you learn those structures.
Of course, it's a lot easier to understand when you can see and hear it in practice.
Example: How to put it all togetherLet's look at an example. The graphics here are screenshots of OJAD (Online Japanese Accent Dictionary), an extremely useful tool for learning accent patterns of Japanese words and seeing how entire sentences form together. I highly suggest going to OJAD as you read this, copying each sentence into "Prosody Tutor Suzuki-kun" then having it generate an audio sample for you to listen to. Yup, you can paste any Japanese text into the box and it will give you the accent pattern and even allow you to create voice samples!
OJAD uses a simple symbolism to depict the accent pattern of mora:
- Mora that will be pronounced low will have no markings
- Mora that will be pronounced high will have a line over them
- Accented mora (that are the highest and cause a drop afterward) will be red and the line above them will have a little hook.
Starting with a simple sentence...Anyway, let's start with a simple sentence that is one word and build from that:
出来ない (dekinai - 'I can't do it.')
This sentence, which for the sake of example is also just one word, has four mora: de, ki, na, and i. Each mora in Japanese is represented by one kana in Japanese.
You can see here that the accent pattern for dekinai has an accent on the second mora. If you read the rules above, you'll notice that the first mora will be low (unless it's accented) and then we will hvae all 'high' mora until the accent. The accent is the second mora here, so it's also the one and only high mora in the word. The mora in the rest of the word are all low, because you drop down after an accent until you reach another high pattern.
So when saying dekinai, you will start by saying the first mora (de) low, then rise up to say the second mora (ki). Since ki is the accented mora, it goes up a bit more than normal and then immediately afterward, the next mora (na) is said low. The final mora (i) is of course also low because the pitch should not change. Overall we have a general decline, as well, as you can see by the gray curved line above the word. The dark black line above the word shows the general pitch and tone your voice will have while saying this sentence.
Try copying and pasting 出来ない into OJAD's Suzuki-kun, clicking "Anaylze" to show the accent pattern, then "Generate" to create a voice sample, then "Playback" to see what it sounds like. You can also go to the OJAD word search and search for it there, where you can hear pre-recorded audio of native Japanese speakers saying it (this only works with some words though). Notice how ki is higher in pitch than all the others, and is especially emphasizes through pitch, but it still pronounced with the same loudness and length as the other mora.
Adding on to fit words together...Now let's try adding to our sentence. We're going to add this word:
全然 (zenzen - completely/wholly)
Before we put the two together, let's look at zenzen's accent pattern on its own:
We can put the two together to make this:
全然出来ない (zenzen dekinai - "I can't do it at all.")
Which, when we plug it into OJAD, shows us this accent pattern:
Adding one more type of accent...Now we will add one more word to this sentence. We're going to use this:
まだ (mada - still &c.)
To form まだ全然出来ない (mada zenzen dekinai - "I still can't do it at all.")
The accent pattern of mada on its own looks like this:
When we put them together, we get exactly what we expected:
As you can see, the accent pattern of zenzen dekinai from before did not change. Because the da at the end of mada was unaccented and we were saying it lower, when we got to the first mora of zenzen, it just stayed low like we expected.
However, let's use 本当に instead of まだ.
本当に (hontou ni - truthfully, really)
This also is an unaccented phrase:
Here, you can see something interesting. Notice that after the unaccented word zenzen, the first ('unaccented') mora of dekinai stays high, rather than dropping back to a low pitch. As explained previously, because dekinai is an accented word, everything before the accent will just absorb the pitch of what came before it. Because zenzen ends with a high pitch, the de becomes high as well.
But it's a little different in the case of the first mora of zenzen. Notice that even though hontou ni ended with a high pitch, we still drop back down in pitch to say the beginning of zenzen. Words that are unaccented (don't have any "red" characters) will generally always "drop" on the first mora like this before going back up. Notice how the black line steadily declines to the end of the sentence starting at the second mora of the sentence, but there's a sudden "dip" for the first mora of zenzen.
You can also see how accented words will absorb the pitch of what's before them with this example:
In general, you can just remember these rules:
- Switch to low pitch after an accented mora on an accented word.
- Rise on the second mora of any word unless you're already at a high pitch.
- Dip down for the first mora of unaccented words if you're at a high pitch.
- Pay attention to grammar patterns that alter general pitch rules.
Generally, you don't need to actually think of the rules as you speak. Whenever you learn new words, learn their accent pattern. It will become second nature to drop down after accented mora and rise up on the second mora of words. The two main things you need to watch out for are unaccented words (so you know when to rise up and when to dip) and where the accents are in all the other words (so you know when to drop back down).
Another way to think of it is that second mora of words are "rising points" the morae after accents are "dropping points." The only time the second mora of a word won't rise is, obviously, when the first mora is accented, because then the second mora becomes the 'dropping point.'
Don't make your pitch changes big. They're very subtle. It shouldn't sound like singing. It's just a slight nuance in your voice. Low pitches are more 'humble' sounding and high pitches are more 'pressing' sounding, in my opinion.
To really get an idea of what it should all sound like, listen to the audio clip on the Wikipedia article for Japanese pitch accent, which will demonstrate words that have the same pronunciation except for pitch. Also, listen to native Japanese speakers talk and pay attention to the way their voice rises and falls. Do your best to mimic this.
Pitch accent is one of the most difficult parts of the Japanese language for many English-speakers to learn because it's very unlike English. But one of the parts that makes it so hard is that many people practice Japanese for a long time without ever bothering to understand and practice pitch accent correctly, so not only is it different from English, but it's different from the English-accented Japanese they've incorrectly learned this whole time. The earlier you pay attention to pitch accent, the better your Japanese pronunciation will be.