Japanese intonation changes in two-word compounds

By | January 13, 2015

Japanese pitch accent (something I’ve written about before) is tricky because each word has a different combination of up and down pitches, and sometimes the accent of one word can affect a word immediately after it. To make things even more complicated, different regional dialects of Japanese have very different patterns of accents – for example Kyoto accent is often opposite to the standard Tokyo accent. (See the featured image for a detailed breakdown of different accent types.

For these reasons, as a beginner or even intermediate student it’s easy to glaze over this topic, and in fact many of the textbooks I’ve looked at either deemphasize it or ignore it completely. To a certain extent, I agree that having a student try to memorize the correct pattern of pitches for every single word is a pretty daunting task, and certain things like proper grammar are more important, at least initially. Ultimately, if you are going to have any change of matching native pitches you’ll have to speak Japanese on a day-to-day basis for months if not years.

But regardless of your level, I think it’s good to be aware of the basic patterns of Japanese intonation. For some the basics, you can check out the post I just referred to above (here).

In this article I wanted to discuss something I accidentally discovered when listening to a podcast sometime back, and then I later researched and confirmed it is a common occurrence.

What I noticed was that often the pitch of a set of words changed when used in a compound word (複合語, ふくごうご).

Let’s start with the word for photograph, which is 写真(しゃしん), and the word for blue, which is 青(あお). These words have the following pitch accents:  (H = high pitch, L = low pitch)

  • しゃしん        (写真)
  • L      H H  (H)
  • あお                (青)
  • H  L

[Note: I’ve written the final “(H)” in しゃしん to indicate the pitch stays up for the following word]

So  しゃしん rises on the second syllable, while あお falls on the same syllable.

Now let’s look at the word for ‘blueprint’, which is a compound of these two words (青写真)

  • あおじゃしん  (青写真)
  • L H  H     L  L

If you compare this with the above words, you’ll see the pitches have totally reversed. あお is now rising instead of falling, and しゃしん (pronounced じゃしん in this compound) is now falling!

This is a bit confusing at first but the reason I am introducing it is because the pattern is actually quite common. Here are the rules for what tends to happen in compound words:


1) The first word in the compound changes so that it’s pitch rises on the second syllable, regardless of what it was before.

2) If the second word had a ‘rising/falling’ pitch pattern (like たまご which is L H L), the beginning of the word stays high but the fall is unchanged (H H L).

3) If the second word is a different pitch pattern, it now changes so that it’s pitch falls at the second syllable (H L, H L L, H L L L, etc.)


Though there are some exceptions to these rules, you can assume this occurs for most two word compounds. This actually makes pronouncing compound words correctly much easier. An added bonus is that if you listen for this type of pattern, you can pick out where compound words are present in a dialog.




(Featured image reference: http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/日本語の方言のアクセント#mediaviewer/File:Japanese_pitch_accent_map-ja.png)

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