It is hypothesized that Proto-Indo-European had a pitch accent system, which was preserved in Ancient Greek, where it later changed into a stress accent, and Vedic Sanskrit. In other Indo-European languages, such as Swedish, Norwegian, Lithuanian, and Serbo-Croatian, new pitch accent systems evolved that were unrelated to that of Proto-Indo-European. (The systems of Lithuanian and Serbo-Croatian may derive from an innovation in Proto-Slavic.)
Pitch accent is not a coherently defined term, but is used to describe a variety of systems that are on the simple side of tone (simpler than Yoruba or Mandarin) and on the complex side of stress (more complex than English or Spanish).
The pitch-accent language, on the other hand, has only three possibilities:
The combination *[ábá] does not occur.
With longer words, the distinction becomes more apparent: eight distinct tonal trisyllables [ábábá, ábábà, ábàbá, àbábá, ábàbà, àbábà, àbàbá, àbàbà], vs. four distinct pitch-accented trisyllables [ábaba, abába, ababá, ababa].
These are described as tonal word accents by Scandinavian linguists, because there is a set number of tone patterns for polysyllabic words (in this case, two) that is independent of the number of syllables in the word; in more prototypical pitch-accent languages, the number of possible tone patterns is not set but increases in proportion to the number of syllables.
For example in many East Norwegian dialects, the word "bønder" (farmers) is pronounced using tone 1, while "bønner" (beans or prayers) uses tone 2. Though the difference in spelling occasionally allow the words to be distinguished in written language, in most cases the minimal pairs are written alike. A Swedish example would be the word "tomten," which means "Santa Claus" (or "the house gnome") when pronounced using tone 2, and means "the plot of land," "the yard," or "the garden" when pronounced using tone 1. Thus, the sentence "Är det tomten på tomten?" ("Is that Santa Claus out in the yard?") uses both pronunciations right next to each other.
Although most dialects make this distinction, the actual realizations vary and are generally difficult for non-natives to distinguish. In some dialects of Swedish, including those spoken in Finland, this distinction is absent. There are significant variations in the realization of pitch accent between dialects. Thus, in most of western and northern Norway (the so-called high-pitch dialects) accent 1 is falling, while accent 2 is rising in the first syllable and falling in the second syllable or somewhere around the syllable boundary.
The word accents give Norwegian and Swedish a "singing" quality which makes it fairly easy to distinguish them from other languages.
Serbo-Croatian has four types of pitch accent: short falling, short rising, long falling and long rising. The long accents (which are not found in the written language) are realized by pitch change within the long vowel; the short ones are realized by the pitch difference from the subsequent syllable. Monosyllabic lexical words always have a falling tone. Polysyllabic words may also have a falling tone, but short, two-syllable words (with the exception of foreign borrowings and interjections) are stressed only on the first syllable. However, they may instead have a rising tone, on any syllable but the last. Accent shifts are very frequent in declension and conjugation, both by type and placement in the word. In short, stress can theoretically fall on any syllable but the last one. In practice, either the second-last or third-last syllable is usually stressed and, unlike the East Slavs and Bulgarian, misunderstandings rarely occur if the wrong syllable is stressed .
Proclitics (clitics which latch on to a following word), on the other hand, may "steal" a falling tone (but not a rising tone) from the following mono- or bisyllabic word. This stolen accent is always short, and may end up being either falling or rising on the proclitic. This phenomenon (accent shift to proclitic) is most frequent in the Bosnian variant, in Serbian variant is more limited (normally, with negation proclitic ne), and almost absent from the Croatian one. Short rising accent resists such shift better than the falling one (as seen in the example /ʒěli:m/→/ne‿ʒěli:m/)
|in isolation||with proclitic|
|rising||/ʒěli:m/||I want||/ne‿ʒěli:m/||I don't want|
|/zǐːma/||winter||/u‿zîːmu/||/û‿ziːmu/||in the winter|
|falling||/vîdi:m/||I see||/ně‿vidi:m/||I don't see|
|/grâːd/||town||/u‿grâːd/||/û‿graːd/||to town (stays falling)|
|/ʃûma/||wood||/u‿ʃûmi/||/ǔ‿ʃumi/||in the wood (becomes rising)|
|Accent on first mora||Accent on second mora||Accentless|
Not counting closed syllables (those with a final glottal stop), a Shanghainese word of one syllable may carry one of three tones, high, mid, low. (These tones have a contour in isolation, but for our purposes that can be ignored.) However, low always occurs after voiced consonants, and only there. Thus the only tonal distinction is after voiceless consonants and in vowel-initial syllables, and then there is only a two-way distinction between high and mid. In a polysyllabic word, the tone of the first syllable determines the tone of the entire word. If the first tone is high, following syllables are mid; if mid or low, the second syllable is high, and any following syllables are mid. Thus a mark for high tone is all that is needed to write tone in Shanghainese:
|No voiced initial (mid tone)||aodaliya||澳大利亚||mid-high-mid-mid||Australia|
|No voiced initial (high tone)||kónkonchitso||公共汽車||high-mid-mid-mid||bus|
Languages that use lexical pitch accents are described as pitch accent languages, in contrast to tone/tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese and Yoruba. Pitch accent languages differ from tone languages in that pitch accents are only assigned to one syllable in a word, whereas tones can be assigned to multiple syllables in a word.
This model of pitch accent structure differs from that of the British School, which described pitch accents in terms of 'configurations' like rising or falling tones. It also differs from the American Structuralists' system, in which pitch accents were made up of some combination of low, mid, high, and overhigh tones. Evidence favoring the two-level system over other systems includes data from African tone languages and Swedish. One-syllable words in Efik (an African tone language) can have high, low, or rising tones, which would lead us to expect nine possible tone combinations for two-syllable words. However, we only find H-H, L-L, and L-H tone combinations in two-syllable words. This finding makes sense if we consider the rising tone to consist of an L tone followed by an H tone, making it possible to describe one- and two-syllable words using the same set of tones. Bruce also found that alignment of the peak of a Swedish pitch accent, rather than the alignment of a rise or fall, reliably distinguished between the two pitch accent types in Swedish. Systems with several target levels often over-predict the number of possible combinations of pitch targets.
Most theories of prosodic meaning in English claim that pitch accent placement is tied to the focus, or most important part, of the phrase. Some theories of prosodic marking of focus are only concerned with nuclear pitch accents.
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