Japanese pitch accent

Japanese pitch accent is a feature of the Japanese language. It distinguishes words in most Japanese dialects, though the nature and location of the accent for a given word may vary between dialects. For instance, in standard Tokyo Japanese the word for "now" is [ima], with the accent on the first syllable (or equivalently, with a downstep in pitch between the first and second syllables), but in the Kansai dialect it is [].

Descriptions of Japanese pitch accent

Scalar pitch

In standard Japanese (標準語 hyōjungo), pitch accent has the following effect on words spoken in isolation:

  1. If the accent is on the first mora, then the pitch starts high, drops suddenly on the second mora, then goes down more slowly. The drop in pitch occurs mostly during the consonant of the second mora, if there is one, so that the actual fall in pitch is seldom audible. However, if the second mora is a single vowel, the pitch will start out high and fall to low during that vowel. A native speaker will still hear the first mora as accented.
  2. If the accent is on a mora other than the first or the last, then the pitch rises from mora to mora, reaching a near maximum at the accented mora, then dropping suddenly on the next mora. Japanese speakers hear the mora preceding the mora with the sudden drop as accented.
  3. If the word doesn't have an accent, the pitch rises from mora to mora from the start of the word to the end, as in French. About 80% of all Japanese words belong to this class, and the Japanese describe their sound as "flat" (平板 heiban) or "accentless".

Note that these rules apply to phonological words, which include any added particles. So the word "hashi" spoken in isolation can be accented in two ways, either HAshi (accent on the first) or haSHI (flat), while "hashi" plus the subject-marker "ga" can be accented on the first, on the second, or be accentless.

In poetry, a word such as 面白い omoshiroi, which has the accent on the fourth mora ro, is pronounced in five beats (moras), with the tone gradually rising over the omoshiro, then dropping suddenly on the i. Outside poetry, the two moras of roi get slurred into a diphthong like English "boy", and are pronounced with a falling tone.

Binary pitch

The foregoing describes the actual pitch. In most guides, however, accent is presented with a two-pitch-level model. In this representation, each mora is either high (H) or low (L) in pitch.

  1. If the accent is on the first mora, then the first syllable is high-pitched and the others are low: H-L, H-L-L, H-L-L-L, H-L-L-L-L, etc.
  2. If the accent is on a mora other than the first, then the first mora is low, the following moras up to and including the accented one are high, and the rest are low: L-H, L-H-L, L-H-H-L, L-H-H-H-L, etc.
  3. If the word is heiban (doesn't have an accent), the first mora is low and the others are high: L-H, L-H-H, L-H-H-H, L-H-H-H-H, etc. This high pitch spreads to unaccented grammatical particles that attach to the end of the word, whereas these would have a low pitch when attached to an accented word.


Many linguists analyse Japanese pitch accent somewhat differently. In their view, a word either has a downstep or it does not. If it does, the pitch drops between the accented mora and the subsequent one; if it does not have a downstep, the pitch remains more or less constant throughout the length of the word: That is, the pitch is "flat" as Japanese speakers describe it. The initial rise in the pitch of the word, and the gradual rise and fall of pitch across a word, arise not from lexical accent, but rather from prosody which is added to the word by its context: If the first word in a phrase does not have an accent on the first mora, then it starts with a low pitch, which then rises to high over subsequent moras. This phrasal prosody is applied to individual words only when they are spoken in isolation. Within a phrase, each downstep triggers another drop in pitch, and this accounts for a gradual drop in pitch throughout the phrase. This drop is called terracing. The next phrase thus starts off near the low end of the speaker's pitch range and needs to reset to high before the next downstep can occur.

Correct pitch accent

Normative pitch accent, essentially the pitch accent of the Tokyo dialect, is considered essential in jobs such as broadcasting. The current standards for pitch accent are presented in special accent dictionaries for native speakers such as the Shin Meikai Nihongo Akusento Jiten (新明解日本語アクセント辞典) and the NHK Nihongo Hatsuon Akusento Jiten (NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典). Newsreaders and other speech professionals are required to follow these standards.

Foreign learners of Japanese are often not taught to pronounce the pitch accent. Incorrect pitch accent is a strong characteristic of a "foreign accent" in Japanese.

Examples of words which differ only in pitch

These examples are in standard Tokyo Japanese. The pitch accent is indicated with the phonetic symbol for downstep, [].

Romanization Accent on first mora Accent on second mora Accentless
hashi [haɕi] chopsticks [haɕi] bridge [haɕi] edge
ima [ima] now [ima] 居間 living room
kaki [kakʲi] 牡蠣 oyster [kakʲi] fence [kakʲi] persimmon
sake [sake] salmon [sake] alcohol, sake
nihon [ɲihoɴ̩] 二本 two sticks of [ɲihoɴ̩] 日本 Japan

In isolation, the words hashi [haɕi] "bridge" and hashi [haɕi] "edge" are pronounced identically, starting low and rising to a high pitch. However, the difference becomes clear in context. With the simple addition of the particle ni "at", for example, [haɕiɲi] "at the bridge" acquires a marked drop in pitch, while [haɕiɲi] "at the edge" does not.

External links


  • Akamatsu, Tsutomu. (1997). Japanese phonetics: Theory and practice. München: LINCOM EUROPA.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1950). Studies in colloquial Japanese IV: Phonemics. Language, 26, 86-125.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1977). The tone pattern of Japanese: An autosegmental theory of tonology. Tokyo: Kaitakusha.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1999). Accent. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 1, p. 1-30). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20504-7.
  • Kindaiichi, Haruhiko. (1995) , Sanseido.
  • Kubozono, Haruo. (1999). Mora and syllable. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 2, pp. 31-61). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Martin, Samuel E. (1975). A reference grammar of Japanese. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • McCawley, James D. (1968). The phonological component of a grammar of Japanese. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vance, Timothy. (1987). An introduction to Japanese phonology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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