A Common Japanese Intonation Myth

A Common Japanese Intonation Myth

This post is contributed by Dogen, an American Youtuber who writes and performs comedic skits in Japanese. Below is an excerpt from Dogen’s Japanese Phonetics, an upcoming video series Dogen hopes to become the internet’s definitive guide for Japanese pronunciation and intonation (pitch-accent). According to Dogen, the series will be announced in the near future on his Youtube channel. We hope you enjoy this article; if it’s helpful let us know and we’ll try and get Dogen back in the future!

In this brief article I would like to discuss a misconception you’re likely to run into while studying Japanese. For the sake of argument, I will be using the terms ‘pitch-accent’ and ‘intonation’ interchangeably here to very simply describe the high and low sounds of individual words.


The myth: Japanese intonation is flat. Japanese intonation is flat, so it’s not important to study Japanese intonation. Only pronunciation matters.


There are typically two contexts in which this myth occurs, the first being Japanese as a non-tonal East Asian Language, and the second being Japanese as perceived by native Japanese speakers and teachers. In this particular newsletter I will be covering context one—Japanese as a non-tonal East Asian language. Please note that as I am addressing only a limited context in which the ‘Japanese intonation is flat’ misconception occurs, the following points shouldn’t be used to argue with Japanese teachers who encourage a flat way of speaking (this is generally good—albeit limiting—advice for native English speakers). For the more comprehensive argument—which also covers context two—please see my YouTube Channel.


Onto the debunking!


The ‘Japanese intonation is flat’ myth—in context one—stems primarily from well-known ‘tonal vs. non-tonal’ binary language classification, which often limits Japanese learners’ phonetic perceptions of the language to ‘similar to Chinese’ or ‘similar to English’. In other words, because oral languages are typically classified into very broad ‘tonal or non-tonal’ terms, Japanese learners often assume the following.

  1. Japanese is non-tonal, therefore it’s flat

          and / or:

       2. Japanese is non-tonal, therefore it follows the same intonation / accent rules as English


These assumptions are wrong because:

  1. Non-tonal language  ≠  ‘flat language’
  2. There are multiple types of non-tonal languages


You can think of the above in the following way: English is not a tonal language, but it also isn’t flat—English words have accents. When the accent is missing or placed on the wrong syllable, as in syllaBLE, it sounds unnatural. Japanese is similar—there aren’t tones like ‘á’, or ‘ǎ’, as in Mandarin, but there are distinct pitch-accent patterns, and when these pitch accent patterns are missing or wrong, it sounds unnatural. Thus, it’s misleading to say that Japanese intonation is flat just because Japanese is a non-tonal language. A lack of tones does not equate to flat pitch-accent, because tonality and pitch-accent are different phonetic phenomenons.


It’s critically important to emphasize, however, that just because Japanese and English are both non-tonal doesn’t mean they share the same set of intonation rules—the truth is quite the opposite! While English words are typically characterized by a single accent, as in ‘uniVERsity’ or the adopted ‘karaOke’, many Japanese words can have multiple ‘high-pitch’ consonants, as in ‘daIGAKU’ or ‘kaRAOKE’. It’s necessary, therefore, for aspiring Japanese learners to push beyond the common ‘tonal or non-tonal’ terms when speaking about Japanese phonetics.


In summary:

  1. Just because a language is non-tonal doesn’t mean it’s acoustically flat
  2. Try to stop thinking about it like this:
  •          Tonal languages: Mandarin, Vietnamese
  •          Non-tonal languages: English, Japanese

          and start thinking about it like this:

  •          Tonal language: Mandarin, Vietnamese
  •          Stress-accent language: English
  •          Pitch-accent language: Japanese
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