WTF Is a Pitch Accent?

I thought you’d never ask, my friend.

As we’ve established, Japanese does not have nearly as many sounds as English. This is good, because it’s theoretically easy for us (English speakers) to make all of the sounds needed for Japanese. On the flip side, though, few sounds means lots of homophones.

Yeah, ame (雨) means "rain," but the same sounds, ame (飴) can also mean “candy.”

Japanese teachers will tell you that you have to match the proper pitch of these words in order for Japanese people to understand you. Saying Ame means “rain,” but aME means “candy.” If you listen really closely, you can hear this difference:

There are a ton of these. And there are a ton of pure homophones, too. Wataru (渡る), pronounced waTARU, means “to cross (a street, for example),” and wataru (ワタル), pronounced exactly the same, waTARU is a guy’s name. So your life is ruined.

No, I’m just kidding. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here are three reasons why your life is not ruined:

  1. You will pick up proper intonation naturally over time… especially if you’re listening intently and get your Japanese friends and teachers to correct your intonation.

  2. Even if you mess up intonation, people will understand you. In fact…

  3. The importance of the Japanese pitch accent is horribly exaggerated. Scientific studies have shown that, while technically intonation can be used to differentiate the meaning of words, Japanese people actually differentiate homophones via context and grammar, just like in English.

For example, if I say, “This beat is amazing,” and we’re listening to music, then you know that I’m not talking about “beets,” the food. Conversely, if I say, “This pen is red,” then you know that I’m not using the verb “read,” as in “I read a book,” and I’m probably not talking about “My friend Red who loves to read books.” You don’t have to memorize these things. You just pick them up naturally because you’re a human being, and you have an amazing brain that can do all kinds of cool stuff—like learn Japanese, for example.

All that aside, there are cases when the incorrect intonation will cause confusion. Hopefully I can create a course or something that addresses this issue someday. Also, it would be nice to have a source for referencing the correct pitch accent for Japanese words, but I have yet to find one. I saw an electronic dictionary that had them once, but those are a waste of money. So I guess we’ll just have to learn this stuff through Osmosis Jones.

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