Pitch Accent: Is It Important? - Steve Kaufmann

Pitch accent has received more attention recently, especially for learners of Japanese. Do I think pitch accent is important? No. Not important.


Steve is awesome of course but I’d recommend Japanese learners check out what people like Matt vs Japan, and others have to say on the topic before coming to a conclusion.
I would say familiarization with pitch accent is clearly important if you want to have decent pronunciation, just like it’s important to be aware of the concept of stress when learning English. I’m not sure how you could argue otherwise…


Here’s Matt’s rebuttal to a video, also linked in Steve’s vid, calling pitch accent “stupid.”

thanks for the awesome information.

Steve talks about paying attention to how the natives speak and trying to sound like them. He’s probably picking up some of the pitch accent without targetting it by name.
Or so say I, with no knowledge of pitch accent per se. Regardless, it is important, or at least a very good idea, to try to sound like the native speakers in their intonations as well as their pronunciation of phonemes. E.g., in Russian you’ll notice a certain sing-song quality when someone is enumerating through a list. There are some Ukrainians (in South Carolina!) whom I watch on youtube, and there’s a certain cadence and intonation in their speech that I don’t hear from others. (And I’m not talking about phonemes, “g” vs. “h”, e.g.). I don’t necessarily want to sound jut like them, but I would try to imitate that quality if they were the marjority demographic that I wanted to target.
What Steve says about unconciously adopting the patterns and sounds of speech when visiting different regions is interesting. I experience it in my native language, as well may you. I live in the urban area which both of my parents are from. However, we all lived in a more rural area that has a more rural accent when I was growing up. I learned to speak like my parents, but having had plenty of exposure to others I find myself slipping into the more rural modes when talking with someone from out there. (I catch myself and hope they don’t think I’m trying to mimic or mock them!) Something like this is also noticed, e.g., by many viewers of “Smarter Every Day” on youtube when the Alabaman host Destin talks to other locals, including his father. My understanding is that this is a form of code switching (and is straying a bit from the topic of this thread, except for the part about imitating natives.)

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I don’t know why I keep watching stuff about pitch accent. I don’t even speak Japanese! Even watched a lot of the live stream (linked below). I think it is pretty interesting so I’m just surprised any learner of Japanese would not be interested to see what it is and try to incorporate it to some extent. I think I have written something about this on this board before, but there is a light version of this in Swedish. I have noticed foreigners mixing the patterns up and I bet the patterns sound very similar, but for native speakers they sound very different. To me it is almost like different words that happen to have the same spelling (if that makes sense). Not that all of this is a big problem because of context but still. I bet it is worth looking into at least on a basic level.


Doesn’t it seem pretty important then? It’s a change in lexical meaning because of the pitch accent… seems quite similar to tones, which you wouldn’t want to be messing up because it means you’re saying a different word entirely. Is that not the case with pitch accent in languages where it exists? I guess I’m just asking you because you’re mentioning Swedish! :smiley:

I know this is a bit different because it’s English, but here is something I experience quite often. It’s definitely harder for me to follow English L2 speakers when their stress, rhythm, and intonation are very inconsistent or syllable-timed rather than stress-timed. There is also a huge ambiguity factor of how the speaker intends to present the words because the speaker never changes the intonation or they change it in a way that reflects some emotion or mood that they didn’t intend (sometimes maybe they did haha). It’s hard for native speakers to not knee-jerk react to these things because they do carry meaning. Thoughts?

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Exactly. Nobody is saying you need to be a master of pitch accent but the benefits of having a basic understanding of it are significant. I have personally experienced these benefits living in country.

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@iMeoWI Totally agree. From what I’ve heard from Japanese native speakers, they have a similarly hard time following people who ignore pitch accent, just like it would be hard for us to follow someone speaking English with no regard for stress, intonation etc.
In some cases, speaking with the wrong pitch accent can even make your speech unintelligible.

@iMeoWi I believe it is more important in Japanese than in Swedish. Probably mostly because I have the impression that the number of words where the pitch changes the meaning are more common in Japanese. I think I asked @amop567 about this before honestly but the search function here is not the best so I can’t find it.

In Swedish you can get by without knowing it though. You will sound a little funny if you mess the pitch up a lot. And if you make a mistake where the meaning changes. L1 speakers know what you mean after a split second of confusion. Like “Santa is in the yard” and “The yard is on Santa” have the same spelling (Tomten är på tomten) for example.

Personally I don’t only see my current TL as a means of communication, I’m also interested in the language itself. So if I discovered something like this in my TL I would be all over it. But if not I think possibly one of the bigger reasons to look into things like pitch accent is that the closer you get to a native (in all aspects), the more confidence you give whoever you are talking to that you understand them fully.

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