Is Japanese a tonal language? Is it semi-tonal? Does pitch accent affect understanding?

Many people claim that Japanese is a tonal or semi-tonal language What is the reality?▼Links▼

Why early pitch accent is harmful for most learners:

Preliminary article on simplified pitch accent as a listening aid: (open to the public)

Japanese phrase-“words” and how to handle them:

Using homophones as learning aids:

The 4 Simple Sound-Laws of Kanji Compounds (no one tells you these):

The 3 simple laws of self-move/other-move (“transitive and intransitive”) verbs. It isn’t random after all!

The reason you can’t hear Japanese and what to do:

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32 Replies to “Is Japanese a tonal language? Is it semi-tonal? Does pitch accent affect understanding?”

  1. TJ Starr

    While I agree that pitch accent is not so important for being understood, and it DEFINITELY isn't like tone in Chinese, I think you might have understated the importance of pitch accent. While it probably isn't so important for beginners, because it is rarely used to distinguish words as you mentioned, it will still help your pronunciation if you learn it, and help you to be understood. Speaking without it definitely marks you as a non-native speaker, and it is like listening to someone speak your language with a noticeable foreign accent. It is pretty much analogous to stress in English. If I spoke LIKE this, emphasizing the wrong syllables, it would be much harder to listen to and understand. You could probably understand me with a bit of effort, but many people don't have the patience to try to listen and understand someone with a noticeable foreign accent. The Japanese people are very accommodating in this regard, and they are used to hearing foreigners butcher their language.
    I also disagree that pitch accent isn't important because different dialects have different pitch accents. In the United States we pronounce "grass" with the same vowel as in "trap", and in some UK dialects they pronounce it with the same vowel as in "father", but no dialect pronounces it "groos". Similarly, some dialects have a different pitch accent, and some dialects don't have it at all, but that doesn't mean it's not important. If you are learning Standard Japanese, the dialect taught in school and understood all over Japan, you should learn the pitch accent pattern of Standard Japanese. If you want to learn a bit of a dialect like Osaka-ben, then just learn some phrases and memorize the accent pattern of the whole phrase and throw these dialectal phrases in when speaking Standard Japanese. People who speak nonstandard dialects will appreciate the little bit of effort. If you actually LIVE in a place where a non-standard dialect is widely spoken, or live with people who speak it, or just want to study a dialect for its own sake, then you can go and study the pitch accent of that dialect. But, I strongly advise learners, unless they have access to speakers of a non-standard dialect, to just use Standard Japanese. It will get you the farthest, and people are much more likely to understand you if you butcher Standard Japanese as compared to a non-standard dialect

  2. ThatOneSkepticalBaka

    I've read your newest patreon post on pitch accent and it inspired me to try to use pitch as a kind of fourth hook in my mnemonics in learning vocabulary. I'm in love with Japanese voice acting and want to freelance as one one day. I also have great listening skills and my accent is actually naturally pretty accurate despite no training so it's not like i'm climbing a mountain without a rope here. Though pretty accurate isn't enough because just imagine a samurai who speaks in a thick southern accent 20% of the time!

    With your simplification of the four types into unaccented and accented this makes making pitch into a mnemonic much easier for the main anki deck. So what i'm going to try to do is tie the the number of the accented mora of a word to the three hooks. For example 間違う the accented mora is the third one ま[1]ち[2]が[3]う. So I can make a mnemonic like "The clock strikes at three different intervals" and in the case of a unaccented word such as 計画 "The plot of the flat earth society is planning on taking a picture of an earth-colored pizza" In theory it should work without adding too much to the amount of study.

    Now I know you said it's dangerous to see pitch on a mora basis as it may lead to projecting English stress to Japanese words. I know at least for me as I already have a naturally strong Japanese accent so that likely won't be a problem for me, but only time will tell. In theory it seems like an effective tool, what are your thoughts on this?

  3. arpit kumar

    There are so many homophones in Japanese also because there are very few sounds in Japanese. In English, almost every alphabet has multiple ways of pronunciation based on the word it is found in.

  4. attilagoijra54

    Sorry for the 2nd question today but I xame across the word だてに in a movie and rhe jisho definitions do not fully explain the meaning of it and I can barely find anything about it on the internet

  5. Miguel Ángel Sánchez Pla

    Is pitch accent useful? Not really. But you could make a similar argument for grammar. If all that matter is communication then I should be well off saying "pitch accent bad" or "toilet want go". And in a lot of that can still be "valid". But I don't fully agree with the point you've made before that people learn a language just to communicate. I learned English and passed the C2 only to find out later that my accent was very lackluster. This could've been solved by studying pronunciation to some degree early on. After 10 years of exposure I would've picked up a lot more just by immersing if I had had the bases of pronunciation right. So what I would advice people is don't obsses over pitch accent early on, but definitely be aware that it exists and study it's general theory. Just by being aware of it's existence you can start picking a lot more by ear, and then by the time you start getting comfortable speaking, you can start looking deeper into into it. I've been studying for 2 years so I pretty much ignore it on behalf of learning vocabulary, but when you hear something like easy like バカ、どっち, 世界、and notice the pitch accent that is a win in my opinion, your pronunciation just got better and you didn't even had to study.

    TL;DR It's not essential by any means, specially early on, but if you get to a high level of Japanese without paying it attention you'll will definitely regret having neglected it

  6. lurom

    Thank you for your videos. I have recently started your japanese from scratch course and I'm very happy to be comprehending things so much swifter thanks to you, even as a Spanish native. I was wondering if you know discord and what do you think of language exchanges servers in it. I think it's a nice tool and it is also useful for channels to connect with followers. anyways, take care ^^

  7. William Ly

    The basics really do go a long way. If they lead into a massive rote memorization task then we'll have to boil it down what the basics really are. I loved Dogen's course but I don't like how he approached it in terms of how to pick it up yourself. The pronunciation course is way more important after the basics of pitch accent he provides.

    Here is my advice on picking up the basics of pitch accent:

    1) Learn to differentiate the three basic patterns (not really four to me):

    No downstep, downstep after first mora, downstep somewhere in middle (3+ mora words or 2-mora word+particle only)

    There are some Anki decks for this. No need to be perfect.
    Just drill for an hour or two and delete.

    2) Try to produce them. 2-mora words (two patterns only), 3-mora words, and 4-mora words (technically four different patterns, but as long as the downstep is in the middle the error isn't too drastic).
    Pick a few words with っ (watch the pronunciation course if you haven't yet!) for 3-4 mora words.
    Google "Prosody Tutor Suzuki-kun" and test out some words. You can even adjust the pitch accent to see how the word would sound like with a different pitch accent. It's not perfect but it's perfect as a learning tool.

    3) Analyze how they really sound using something like the pitch analyzer of WaveSurfer. You can use audio from Suzuki-kun or from forvo, or whatever is in your pop-up dictionary, and later native audio to see how they each pitch pattern manifests based on a variety of factors.
    Note the curves and the drops, relative starting pitch. For example (perhaps my flawed observations), for a no down step pattern, the last mora tends to fall a bit pitch if there's "time".
    For downstep after first mora, the first mora starts higher than it would for a no down step pattern, actually curves upward a bit to get a rising pitch, then the next mora is drastically lower than it would be for a no down step pattern, and the next few moras if any trail slightly downward in pitch.
    For 3-mora, downstep in middle, the second mora is higher in pitch than it would be vs no downstep pattern, and the third mora is lower.
    For 4-mora, compare the two different downstep in middle patterns. From what I see if the downstep is earlier, then the drop in pitch is kinda split between the third and fourth mora rather than just dropping suddenly at the third mora and the fourth mora being close to pitch to the third. If the downstep is later, the exaggerated gain in pitch to differentiate from no downstep seems to much lessened.

    These are just cues to help you pronounce them correctly. Follow them loosely. Once you can produce any word with each of the three pitch patterns, you can easily correct yourself or receive corrections if someone tells you you're off. Goal is to hopefully be speaking in one of the three patterns instead of something that kinda sounds like one of the patterns or worse. It's okay to guess the wrong pitch pattern as long as you guess one of them! You can probably achieve all the groundwork in a day or two. Refinement and review will come as you immerse. Basics are done. Let's see how it can go from here!

    For Yomichan, get a dictionary or two with pitch accent and pop-up audio. Guess the pitch accent of words and get corrections occasionally. This practice will pave the way to picking up pitch accent intuitively. Try to pick up the way pitch accent changes for verbs based on their form changes by ear. There aren't too many rules even if you learn them from Dogen but it's good practice. Depending on how much you care, you can add an Anki card on the pitch accent mistake you made or just make a strong mental note. Focus more on remembering how the word sounds rather than the abstract information of which pitch pattern it is, but keep it in mind. You'll get very far with the 80/20 rule eventually as you immerse with a bit of continuous effort. There are only three patterns most of the time and at least one of them will sound very off, which is much easier than remembering which combination of 46+ possible kana the word is. Most verbs and adjectives follow one pattern 90%+ of the time too. Learn well the 20% of words that make up 80% of the language, and just guess the remaining 80% with your developed intuition. In terms of your active vocabulary it can be much less than 10% (guessing right half the time) if you keep it simple, so if you sound off then it's a matter of refining the basics rather than how far you're in a massive rote learning exercise.

    From here maybe you can look at the bigger picture of pitch, tone, emotions, emphasis, volume. Learn how to speak clearly, emphasizing the right words and saying particles with a rising pitch like natural Japanese speakers sometimes do. Maybe in a fuwa-fuwa way like Kayano Ai (states herself) in her YouTube videos. Even if you don't reach the golden 20%, mastering the basics helps put you in tune with the language.

  8. Cardinal724

    The thing with Japanese too is not only are there a lot of homophones, but there are also a lot of synonyms or near-synonyms. The majority of homophones come from these terse on'yomi phrasal constructions as you've mentioned, but these on'yomi 'phrases' often also have "expanded" (kun'yomi) versions. So if a speaker feels that saying 出血 or 城内 or 新車 are going to be too ambiguous, they can be replaced by more obvious expressions like 血が出る、お城のうち、新しい車, which is what is preferred in colloquial speech anyway, since a large amount of these on'yomi phrases are considered to be 書き言葉 / written words (although clearly not all of them are), partly because they're seen as being of a higher register and also partly IMO because Japanese people are aware on some level that these words have a higher probability of being ambiguous than other words. This makes sense, since many of these words were invented in the first place as written abbreviations with the expectation that is the context they'd be used in with kanji to disambiguate them, regardless of their sounds.

    Since there are so many different ways to phrase the same idea, a speaker is going to of course make use of these options strategically and put in the work of making sure that what they are saying is clear. It's not like a native speaker is having a conversation and thinking "Oh no, I have no choice but to use this ambiguous homophone, I hope my interlocutor gets what I mean…here goes nothing!". They're choosing words based on their predictions of how their audience will interpret those words. And if the situation does arise where a word truly is ambiguous and there aren't alternatives, the word can be disambiguated with some further modifiers. So a person could always resort to saying something like 空の雲 or 海の鮭・鮭という魚 if it was really a necessity. This is similar to in English how normally we can distinguish between the various meanings of "bat" with no problem, but in the event that it truly does become ambiguous we can always say instead "baseball bat" or "bat, like the animal".

    And this isn't even taking into account the fact that for those words that seem to have 15 or 20 homophones, only really 2-3 of them will be common words, with the rest being extremely obscure. So you might find 20 entries for "kousou" in a dictionary but only 3-4 of them have any real probability of being spoken aloud, while you might never even encounter the others, even in writing, unless you go out of your way to find the most obscure writing possible.

  9. Max Izrin

    Impressive how you keep track of all the previous lessons, and the topics you discussed in the past.
    It's very useful.
    Thank you for your diligence.

  10. Mythrë Ennarion

    Even in Chinese, where pitch is obviously much more important, you can be understood without always having perfect tones. As Curedolly Sensei implies, context is a powerful tool for clarification, and fairly often the grammatical function of homophonous words (the example of to, two and too is a good one for this) makes it almost impossible to mix them up.

  11. Jack Pearson

    I think you make some great points about the counterproductive information people spread about studying Japanese phonology. However, I think you may have been a bit too dismissive of the whole idea. Some people may advocate spending a whole three months studying Japanese phonology for the purpose of being able to communicate better, but others don't. I just recommend that people who are interested in sounding like a more native speaker learn the basics (what is pitch accent, Japanese has two tones, the four pitch accent shapes), then just being conscious of these things going forward. This can be done in a day. I think this a perfectly reasonable position. Dogen, the guy who I think started this phonology craze, represents his course of lessons as being for people who want to develop a native-like accent. He's said that you can be perfectly intelligible with zero phonological training.

  12. incon

    i only do pitch accent because i can memorize it easily. it works better when i'm able to hear someone actually pronounce it but even looking at a pitch accent chart i can get pretty close to the right pronunciation.

  13. Burak Korkmaz

    Hello, I couldn't find the right video to ask this so forgive me.
    It's been bothering me that how 見付かる works. I can make sense of 見付ける, but I couldn't find 付 being used as 付かる alone. Do I have to accept it as is or is there any reasoning behind it.

  14. MrKeepItTrill

    I think this obsession with pitch accent is based on a certain group of online learners who simultaneously have no practical need to be able to speak Japanese, yet also see it as a sort of purity test. Personally I don't care about speaking like a native person because either way I will never be a native person. Nothing wrong with improving your pronunciation, but no need to be obsessive about it.

  15. Jerem E

    I feel if you can do it, then good, but if not, oh well. Some things comes easier to others, but unless it's pertinent to the language itself then best to focus on your understanding first. Words like しょうじょ, しょじょう, しょじょ, and しょうじょう could be important to get down to avoid misunderstandings, but context is key, quite obviously. Personally I've never had a problem with this, but I can't imagine it would be hard to understand someone who did. I learned first by listening, and basically memorizing lines from shows, speaking them as the characters spoke them (for fun), but Japanese lyrics in music still can be hard for me to understand because of the tones and pitches matching the melody rather than natural speaking, but I'm getting better at over time.

  16. Dennis Pulido

    Cool vid as usual. Btw, do you have a video of the common problem of translating japanese to english in your head and how to avoid/deal with it?

  17. Louise Deco Code

    The only pitch/dialect goal I have set my heart on is to learn how to roll my 'R's like an angry Kansai Yankee, so I can then use it to add a bit of flavour to otherwise mundane situations – such as forgetting to take the bins out on bin day, or overly salting a meal.

    Which reminds me, actually…
    Most English people are unable to speak in a Scottish or Welsh accent. But I was able to master both without trying. Not because I had the luxury of sitting in my bedroom studying inflection patterns and rote memorisation. No. I just worked in a call centre and listened the working-class people of Great Britain moan about how their TV reception was poor because of the snow/careless builders/Santa Claus, day-in day-out for 2 glorious years. But I certainly wouldn't want to attempt to use it in Central Glasgow on a Friday night.

    Each video is a weekly treat, ドリー先生

    Mrs. Shimamoto

    p.s. 今週、結婚式をしました。やった!

  18. Tempestissiman / Arcaea Fanmade Content

    Regarding to your idea to simplify pitch accent to a few basic rules, that's what Dogen did in his Phonetic series as well. He only mention the most useful rules and other complicated rules / intuitive rules are either simplified massively into general guidelines or cut out completely. His main goal is to keep the rules as intuitive as possible so learners don't have to think too much when outputting. If you haven't seen it yet I think that's a good starting point. My favourite guideline was to do with when foreign loanwords are pronounced flat (as opposed to -3 pattern): they tend to be flat if the words has set in stone and integrated in the language (or something of that line)

    Another thing I'd like to add is it might be great benefit to just be aware of the most basic rules and that will significantly boost your ability to pick it up from listening. I've found more and more that getting the pitch accent of a word right isn't really as important as getting the general pronunciation right (e.g saying tabete flat instead of ta v be ^ te v is already miles better imo even though it's not the correct pitch).

    On that note I also feel like getting the correct pronunciation of vowels and consonants is a much better use of time. It doesn't take long to learn the rules, and you can practice speaking and hearing the sounds over time. The effect of proper sound pronunciation is huge imo, so if you're gonna spend time at all, this can be a good way

    Of course all boils down to personal goal. I wanted to improve my pronunciation so I learnt pitch. Plenty of people got successful with Japanese without even having heard of the word, clearly it's not that important as everyone make it out to be. But if one's interest is there I think it can be beneficial to spend a week or two to just get the all basic rules down.

  19. ⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻

    If I remember correctly, Matt once said not knowing the pitch accent is like being colorblind. You can function without it, but it helps.

  20. Law Thirtyfour

    I thinking saying you can be understood without it and then forgetting its existence is a bit too far.

    I just color my anki cards based on pitch and say them out loud when reviewing. Pitch accent DA a can be appended automatic ally from yomichan.

  21. Shary

    My approach to speech accent:

    Step 1: Knowing that it exists

    Step 2: Being able to distinguish a difference between different speeches on the same word. (usually achieved after 1 and a half video from dogen)

    Step 3: Learn vocab from audio and mimic what you hear.

    I have no intention to do more than that. If I want to nitpick pronunciation, I would rather focus on my English which is garbage.

  22. NLeseul

    My approach right now is just to note the accented syllable when I first learn a word, if possible, and not worry about it a whole lot beyond that. If I plan to pronounce a particular phrase in a video or something, I'll double-check the pitch using Suzuki-kun or something.

    I think one thing pitch accent proponents do that isn't particularly helpful is insisting on categorizing every word as 平板 or 中高 or whatever. It's unnecessary jargon. I've never seen a native reference material actually use those terms; when they do bother to note pitch accent, they usually just give the accented mora as a number, and that's perfectly adequate to work out the pitch pattern given a bit of knowledge of how pitch patterns work. (I do sometimes wish they'd visually mark the accented mora somehow, the way English dictionaries mark accents… but the fact that they don't bother is probably indicative of how important native reference materials actually consider pitch accent.)

    I suspect that the main function of pitch accent is just to help mark the boundaries between words or phrases in speech. I tend to see that in compound words a lot, where the first word in a compound word will have a rising pitch, and the next word will have a falling pitch. I don't know much about pitch accents other than "standard" pitch, but I'd imagine they have the same function, and just use a different set of rules to do it.

    I do think one reason why a slight amount of pitch awareness in Japanese is valuable is just that, by focusing on speaking with some authentically Japanese pitch accent—even if it isn't necessarily the "correct" one for the word—you'll be more conscious of how you're pronouncing words and won't fall into the habit of saying everything with a heavy American stress accent (or whatever your native accent is).

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