1. What is an apostrophe doing in the middle of a word?
In this blog, some example words in romaji contain an apostrophe, such as /i’chi/ and /genki’n/ while other words do not, such as /shigoto/ and /shiyoochuu/. I use an apostrophe here to indicate the location of a word accent. Yes, Japanese language has an accent, an accent that is not pronounced in the same way that an English accent is pronounced: In English a single syllable gets stressed with more volume of air, longer duration, and often a raised pitch. In Japanese, you do not change the amount of air or duration, but you do have a pitch drop.
2. Two Types of Tonal Contours in Japanese
The key to good pronunciation in Japanese is to maintain the same pitch level until there is an accent where you drop a pitch, and then to maintain that new level until the next drop. Japanese has only two kinds of tones, a high tone and a low tone. Unlike other languages such as Chinese, there is no internal shift except at the end of a phrase or sentence. A tonal phrase is a phrase that begins with a low tone. A word pronounced by itself always starts with a low tone unless it has an accent. A tonal phrase that has accented words and a tonal phrase that does not have an accented word create very different tonal contour patterns.
If a tonal phrase has more than one accented word, what follows is a stepdown contour.
Example (1) [目覚まし/meza’mashi/ “alarm clock”; で /de/ an instrumental particle; 目が覚めた /me’ ga sameta/ “woke up’; 朝 /a’sa/ “morning”; and は /wa/ a topic marker]
If a tonal phrase does not have any accented word, you have to maintain high tones without raising or dropping the pitch.
Example (2) [使用中 /shiyoochuu/ “being in use”; と a quotatative particle; 言ってる/itteru/ ‘is saying”; 学生/gakusee/ “student“]
An important thing to learning good pronunciation is to resist raising or lowering the pitch where it is not required. Pronouncing a long stretch in the same flat level is a skill that an English speaking student has to consciously learn.
3. Contrast between 位置 /i’chi/ and 一 /ichi’/
Let us take as an example the contrast between two different words that would otherwise sound the same; 位置 (“position” /i’chi/) and 一 (“one’ /ichi’/). Please listen:
You see an accent mark in 一 /ichi’/. How does it work? We have to put it in a sentence. Suppose two speakers A and B are making a poster or flyer. Something does not look right, and Speaker A asks Speaker B what she thinks:
Let’s hear this again, this time only the two sentences in contrast.
The difference in pronunciation and what it conveys is clear, isn’t it?
４. JLPT Listening Comprehension
A few days ago I was listening to the sample Listening Comprehension questions for the Japanese Language Proficiency Tests of the Japan Foundation (https://www.jlpt.jp/e/samples/forlearners.html). It struck me how important it is to learn natural pronunciation, including the tonal and intonational contours, to be able to understand. In a test, you have to understand a constructed story in an environment where there is no information that helps your understanding such as body language, facial expression, previous knowledge, etc. Not knowing the accent would hamper your listening comprehension, not to mention your speaking.
5. Sharpen Your Awareness
So, just to sharpen your awareness even while you study kanji, I would like you to listen to the recording below and think about the words you have seen in this blog, by contrast to words that have a different word accent. You will hear the words in blue.
I will probably not put a sound file in every word I talk about, but I would like to come back to a few pronunciation topics in the future to help you to learn to speak correctly in the first place. [April 27. 2014]
PS 1 Here I am talking about only the standard Japanese. Even if you do not care whether you speak the standard Japanese, which is based on the Tokyo dialect, or another dialect, unless you are conscious of pitch (tonal) contour, you will be prone unconsciously to apply the accent and intonational rules of your native language and to end up acquiring what is called /gaijin-a’kusento./
PS 2 If you wish to see how some textbook dialogues look in the type of the tonal contour images that I used in Examples (1) and (2), you can view the dialogue scripts of all 23 lessons in the elementary-level Japanese textbook entitled Genki I & II (Japan Times.) I first created this new visual transcription of tonal contour, which I named 目で見る音調ガイド (“Guide to visual tonal contours” /me’ de miru onchoo/), for a different textbook back in 2003. The link for the Genki versions is http://genki.japantimes.co.jp/resources/onchou.