One of the unspoken challenges of learning to speak Japanese properly is pitch accent. However, it is important and often overlooked. Afterall, the difference between hashi (箸 chopstick) and hashi (橋 bridge) is just a difference in pitch.
So what is pitch accent? Unlike languages like English, there is no stress on syllables. Each syllable is one beat, and equally weighted. So a word like Yokohama is pronounced in 4 even beats:
However, the pitch of each beat can be either high, low or flat depending on the word. Most words tend to have flat intonation, but a fair number of words have a high-pitched accent along with a low-pitched accent. So for the example above:
- Hashi (chopstick) – Ha (high) shi (low)
- Hashi (bridge) – Ha (low) shi (high)
The trouble is is that there’s nothing in Japanese writing that tells you which one it is. Japanese language textbooks and educational resources seldom talk about it either, so the student is frequently on their until too late. Native speakers of course just pick this up naturally. If you live there long enough, you might pick it up, but until then, you’ll sound an awful lot like a foreigner.¹ ²
Thus, one of the challenges of learning to pronounce Japanese correctly is how to annotate pitch accent in textbooks or online resources. Romanization or rōmaji doesn’t have anything notation for pitch accent. That means you have to get creative.
I’ve tried to come up with my own way of noting where the pitch accent, if any, exists in a word, but haven’t found a perfect solution. My criteria are:
- Avoid diacritics if possible. They’re hard to type on some keyboards, and on smartphones.
- Must be intuitive.
- Easy to add into flashcards like Anki and such.
- Can work with either Romaji romanization or maybe even Hiragana.
This has proven harder than I expected. I searched for solutions online but didn’t find any clear consensus.
For example, one idea is to simply add an apostrophe to the high-pitched syllable. For example, arigatou (thank you, ありがとう) would be ar’igatou. The example above between “chopstick” and “bridge” would be h’ashi and hash’i respectively.
This kind of works, but doesn’t differentiate between high and low accents. For example omoshiroi (interesting, 面白い) has a low-accent at “ro”. So, we would have to put another, different accent mark. According to this site, the IPA notation would be a circumflex: ^. So, omoshiroi would become something like omoshirôi. But this sort of violates my rule using diacritics (which are hard for some keyboards to type), so we could simply do omoshir^oi. That looks a bit awkward though easier to type.
A nicer, cleaner looking method might be to use acute and grave diacritics to denote high and low pitch accents relative to the flat tone: For example, the bridge and chopstick might be háshi and hashí, or omoshiròi. This poses other problems though as it can be harder to type (I had to use the “special characters” feature on my keyboard to type the previous sentence), and kind of confuses which are flat and which have a non-flat tone. On the other hand, it looks a lot nicer.
There are other methods too, but to me, these two are the simplest and most convenient for flash cards, and such. Maybe even Japanese language textbooks mighy hopefully adopt something like this one day.
For now, I prefer the simple, though ugly, use of notations like apostrophes and circumflex, but I am definitely open to other methods if anyone has suggestions.
1 As someone who’s studied for a long-time, but never lived there, I still speak with a heavy accent. My wife frequently misunderstands which word I am talking about because the pitch accent is wrong.
² I’ve been told that people with an ear for music are more likely to pick this up early. My daughter plays piano regularly and has a perfect Japanese accent. I was always terrible at music, so not surprisingly I don’t. ;p