Japanese as a pitch accent language


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I'm reading this book that is telling me that Japanese doesn't use "stress" in words, but rather "pitch" to distinguish same-sounding words. For example, the word "shiro" can mean "white" or "castle", depending on pitch. Both syllables in "shiro" supposedly get equal stress (no "up" or "downs"). It's just a different in pitch. So "shiro", meant to mean "castle", would have a high pitch on the second:) syllable.

Thank you in advance for any clarifications you may be able to give me (I'm a bit confused, I must say).
  • Hello,

    I don't know the accurate rule about 'pitch'. But...

    A. きれいなろ(白)だね It's beautiful white.

    B. きれいなし(城)だね It's a beautiful castle.

    In case A, I feel stress on the 'し'. and in case B, a bit stress on the 'ろ'.
    But, in a word 'しい(白い=whilte)' as adjuctive, there is no stress on 'し', but a bit stress on 'ろ'. I hope this help you.

    I don't know the accurate rule about 'pitch'. But...

    A. きれいなろ(白)だね It's beautiful white.

    B. きれいなし(城)だね It's a beautiful castle.

    In case A, I feel stress on the 'し'. and in case B, a bit stress on the 'ろ'.
    But, in a word 'しい(白い=whilte)' as adjuctive, there is no stress on 'し', but a bit stress on 'ろ'. I hope this help you.

    Thank you so much for your reply:) It does help.
    I wonder if someone could help with my query. I remember (possibly incorrectly) reading that Japanese is a pitch accent language and pitch is a noncontrastive feature because it can be predicted by a number of rules. However, I understand that words such as hashi (bridge) and hashi (chopstick) have different pitch accents and can be distinguished as a result. Is this just an exception to a general rule or am I misunderstanding the issue in some way?

    I would be very grateful if someone could explain this to me.

    Thanks in advance.
    To start of with a disclaimer I'm really just a dabbler in japanese, but I do speak a pitch accent language which makes the concept a bit easier to grasp. My understanding is that the meaning can differ with a different distribution of pitch, but not necessarily and really not that often in Japanese.

    Even if switching the pitch doesn't change the meaning of a certain word, it will sound very odd to a native speaker as words do have a "correct" distribution of pitch. The Japanese system is a bit different from other typical pitch accent languages however.

    Norwegian (and Swedish?) has two tones that never differ for a certain meaning of a word, but the way pitch is realized differs (falling or rising depending on dialect). Japanese has a set pattern of high/mid/low pitch distributed on the different moras that can differ with dialects as far as I understand.

    Please wait for a native speaker in case I'm way off here :)
    Thanks for your reply, Cerb. I found it both useful and interesting and I don't think that you are way off at all.

    I guess that ultimately I am trying to understand how it is possible for pitch to be noncontrastive and yet for words such as hashi (bridge) and hashi (chopstick) to be distinguished by their pattern of pitch.

    My understanding of 'noncontrastive' is that pitch is predictable from the environment in which it occurs. Yet for these words, the pattern of pitch would appear to relate to the meaning of the word. Is it therefore the case that pitch is always noncontrastive in Japanese?

    I wonder if a linguist will be able to help me with this rather than a native speaker.
    Since I haven't made 30 posts, I can't send you links to the websites I found briefly covering this issue, すみません. Anyway, I am only an amateur linguist and my Japanese is likewise modest, but I was surprised by your question, since I was under the distinct impression that pitch was contrastive in Japanese, though not all that often. I think there is some confusion here, since the brief research I did all supports pitch being contrastive in Tokyo Japanese. Or more precisely, Tokyo Japanese uses lexical tones, which are tones meaningful at the level of words, rather than the pitch used at the semantic level; for example, the raised pitch at the end of a question which is common to both English and Japanese.

    Basically, Tokyo Japanese seems to use pitch on top of an underlying accent system, similar to the way we use stress in English; for example, contrasting verbs and nouns based purely on stress, but in Japanese these pitch accents seem to rarely result in minimal pairs. However, this is only for Tokyo Japanese, and the Osaka dialect, for example, often uses a pitch pattern opposite to that used by the Tokyo Japanese, giving them a distinct accent. Each dialect seems to be radically different with regard to these features, and though Tokyo Japanese appears to be, technically, a tonal language, other dialects may not be. Some examples of these differences from the link I can't send you:

    Fukushima Japanese ([-lexical tones]) and Tokyo Japanese ([+lexical tones, +accent]) are common in that they have a feature [+dephrasing]. Also, Kobayashi Japanese ([-lexical tones]) shares a feature [-dephrasing] with Osaka Japanese ([+lexical tones, +accent]) and Kagoshima Japanese ([+lexical tones, -accent]).

    I hope this is helpful!
    Very interesting!

    Your comments have made me try and recall where I think that I saw this thing about pitch being noncontrastive.

    I think (although I am not certain) that it was in the book 'Introduction to Japanese Linguistics' by Tsujimura that I read that Japanese is a pitch accent language and that pitch is noncontrastive as it is predictable by the environment in which it occurs. But I may be totally wrong as I have a very bad memory...!

    Thanks for your help in this. Much appreciated.
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    Well, I know from experience that it's possible to get laughed at for using the wrong pitch, but almost impossible to be misunderstood. Though the example with white/castle is a pretty good one; if you were commenting on a white castle, using the wrong pitch would result in a misunderstanding. It is certainly not contrastive on the level of Mandarin, but it does have minimal pairs in the same lexical category, i.e. "hashi" 橋 and 箸, which are both nouns, and then there's 端, "end of the street", which I think matches "chopsticks" if I remember correctly. So chopsticks and end would be homophones, but bridge isn't. Anyway, pitch is important enough that I have been finding it increasingly annoying that no dictionary I've found marks pitch, and I have to figure it out from listening to others and copying them, and because English speakers are not equipped to hear lexical tones, we often screw it up. This has been the topic of several international poker games here. Glad I could be of a little assistance. Maybe a pro linguist will set us straight on the issue.
    I've tried looking a bit more into this. I understand that you might be interested in this purely from a theoretical point of view, but as for learning a pitch accent language I don't think trying to apply rules to how pitch works is very fruitful. Even if we rarely reflect over the mechanics of the language we speak when speaking it, pitch is probably one of the most subconscious features. People without some interest in studying language usually aren't even aware that they have it and use it. Using the wrong pitch sounds off, but ascribing it to not following the rules of pitch would take someone with at least some knowledge of linguistics (this is true of Norwegian at least).

    One thing that did catch my eye was that pitch distribution can vary depending on the surrounding words in a sentence. I assume this is what gave you the idea of pitch being a noncontrastive feature. If you pointed out to someone that they changed the pitch of a certain word due to the surrounding words I'm guessing a native speaker would simply say that it came naturally to them to do so in that context. I doubt altering pitch due to this "rule" is done very consciously. I'm assuming it has more to do with the flow of the language. I'd love to hear a native speakers thoughts on this though.

    Apart from being aware of pitch as a feature to start with, and especially the words that change meaning due to pitch, I think trying to pick it up bit by bit from listening probably is the best idea. Applying rules to use sounds like an overwhelming task to me. It's hard for me to judge how hard this approach would be for you though.

    Again, don't consider this to be true in any way. I'm just trying to make some sense of it based on how I feel about my own native use of pitch. I'm nowhere near competent to tell exactly how it works in Japanese. As for dictionaries I heard the Pocket Kenkyusha might be of some help with this, but I don't own one myself.