Japanese/Pitch accent

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Japanese uses pitch accent, where every mora can either be pronounced with a high or low pitch. Not all dictionaries will indicate this, but pitch accent is certainly important, because it can make the difference between different words.

For example, using bold for high pitches:

ま (今) - "now"
(居間) - "living room"

Pitch is, however, to some extent a characteristic of regional accents, so a Kanto speaker may be using the opposite pitches to a Kansai speaker. Where pitch is taught, it will be standard Japanese (essentially the Tokyo dialect). Pitchless Japanese is easily understood by native speakers and incorrect pitch will at most sound somewhat odd. Studying pitch, therefore, isn't essential to the learning Japanese and is perhaps best picked up by conversing with native speakers.

Linguists, however, tend to classify Japanese as having a falling pitch following what is considered the stressed vowel.

Syllable Counting[edit]

Consonant-Vowel Combinations written as Digraphs count as 1 syllable. These are cases where you have き、ぎ、し、じ、ち、に、ひ、び、ぴ、み、り combined with や、ゆ、and よ to form Digraphs like きゃ, しゅ, ちょ, etc.

So, the ちゅ in 中国[ちゅうごく] accounts for 1 syllable. The whole word is 4 syllables.

A vowel combination counts as 2 syllables. Combinations like おう、えい are 2 syllables. This also includes a vowel being written or said twice, like おお、いい, etc.

Ex. the せい in the word 人生[じんせい] or the おう in だろう would count as 2 syllables.

The syllable counts as 1 syllable, even though in English it doesn't seem to change the syllable count.

Ex. The in 先生[せんせい] is the 2nd syllable in the word, and the whole word has 4 syllables.

The small tsu () which doubles a consonant adds 1 syllable.

Ex. the word 学校(がっこう) has 4 syllables.

This is all important information to know when reading pitch accent, and counting Japanese syllables.

Pitch classification[edit]

When dictionaries give pitch accent, they'll usually indicate it with a number. The number tells you the mora where the last high pitch is. To figure out the pitch pattern, put a low onto the first mora (unless the last high pitch is on that mora), put high pitches onto all the mora that follows, until you hit the last high pitch. After that, put low pitches.

Even more helpful dictionaries will do all of this work for you, by telling you exactly where all the pitches rise or fall.

So, to give some examples.

low HIGH HIGH...
ども 子供 child
たし I
もだち 友達 friend
っし 雑誌 magazine
かい 赤い red
っこう 学校 school
HIGH low low...
しょ 辞書 dictionary
ちゅうごく 中国 "China"
パンフレット パンフレット pamphlet
low HIGH low low...
んしゃ 自転車 bicycle
ゼント プレゼント present
low HIGH HIGH low low...
んせ 先生 teacher
おき 大きい big
くさ たくさん many
low HIGH HIGH HIGH low low...
たらし 新しい new
つくし 美しい beautiful
とうと (one's) younger brother

Notice how ともだち (0) and おとうと (4) look as if they have the same pitch pattern even though they don't? The difference is clear if you add a grammatical pattern like -は after: then we get おとうとは and ともだちは.