PA 101: Sentence Level PA

snphan | Oct. 24, 2021, 5:38 p.m.

Welcome back for the 6th and final post in PA 101!

By the end of this post, you should have enough pitch accent awareness to tackle most situations that require verbal communication (in standard Japanese). Let's dive right in 🐱‍🏍.

In previous posts, we went through how each word has a certain pitch accent. Pitch accents come in 4 flavors: 平板型, 頭高型, 中高型 and 尾高型 and can be represented with a pitch accent number that represents where the drop in pitch occurs. We even got into how to deal with particles that may be attached to nouns. However... Japanese, or any other language in fact, doesn't end at just a noun and particle. There may be adjectives, verbs, more particles, and even copulas strung to this noun-particle pair to create a sentence. What happens to the pitch accent after the noun-particle pair? Well for compound nouns, adjective conjugations, and verb conjugations we will need to get into that at a later post. For this post, we will only look at general tendencies for sentence-level pitch accent for single words in their base form; these words can be represented with a pitch number and can be found in your standard pitch accent dictionary.

There seem to be quite a few rules floating around regarding what to do at sentence-level Japanese Pitch Accents. We'll go through each of the sources and provide examples of what each suggests. All should be valid ways to approach sentence-level pitch accent naturally, but just remember to try to stay within the confines of the 4 flavors of Japanese Accent, prevent your pitch accent from going up and down like a roller coaster and you should be fine (you can use JPAD's Practice Tool to get real-time feedback on your pitch). These rules boil down to dealing with 平板型 in a sentence and what to do after the first in a sentence.


Dealing with 平板型 in a Sentence

Let's start with some examples taken from the NHK Pitch Accent Dictionary (NHK)1. The first mention of sentence-level pitch accents occurs when NHK explores the effect of attaching grammatical modifiers (修飾語・しゅうしょくご) to nouns. These grammatical modifiers can be unconjugated adjectives (赤い~, 白い), and demonstratives such as (この, その, あの) and give specificity to the noun or explain what kind of noun the word is. NHK uses the example of combining この with the word さくら which both have a pitch number of 01. On their own, we would expect the following pitch accent right?


0 = 平板型  (start low, go high and stay high), then repeat for the next word. However, this apparently is "unnatural." Rather there is no drop after the end of the grammatical modifier この and it continues until the end of the word as the 平板型 Flat pattern. The more natural way to pronounce the above word is as follows:


Let's look at another example in the NHK dictionary: 男の子 which has a pitch number of 3 meaning that the pitch drops right before the particle "の".  If we insert この at the beginning, then what we expect to get without consideration of sentence-level pitch accent is as follows:


Roller Coaster Alert🎢⚠! This goes up and down way too much. Rather NHK recommends pronouncing the above phrase like so1:


From this, we can generalize that whenever different parts of speech are strung together, if the previous word has no drop (i.e. it has a pitch accent number of 0 or is 平板型) then there will be no rise at the beginning of the current word, the pitch stays high when transitioning from the previous word to the next. We will use an example from Kanshudo which elegantly strings together a bunch of 平板型 words:


私(0) = わたし

日本語(0) = にほんご

勉強(0) = べんきょう

しています(4) = しています

Since there are no drops until the last word—all words prior to しています are 平板型—the pitch rises at the beginning and stays high until it drops at the 4th mora of the last word. The natural way to say the above sentence is



Multiple Drops in a Sentence

We found some differing opinions for handling sentence-level pitch accent after a drop occurs from NHK, Kanshudo and OJAD, and UBC eNunciate. NHK suggests that after a drop, you should keep dropping your pitch until the end of the sentence or phrase. Kanshudo and OJAD suggest that the pitch will rise following the 4 flavors of pitch accents, but only at a fraction of the initial rise. And finally, UBC Enunciate suggests that in regular speech [which is pretty fast], the pitch after a drop stays low without any further distinct drops. We will start with an example from NHK to clarify what these sources are trying to get at:


変(1) = へん

ズボン(1) = ずぼん

男の子(3) = おとこのこ

NHK suggests that [plot twist] we shouldn't think of pitch accents as a two-dimensional or binary concept with simply high and low pitches1. Rather we look at the drops (核) and extrapolate. After the first drop which we find occurs on the first mora of the first word へん, we continue to drop wherever the pitch is not 平板型 and never rise. In this example, a subsequent drop occurs at the first mora of the second word ずぼん and a further drop occurs at the third mora of the last word おとこのこ. These drops are quite subtle compared to the first drop (we don't know about you, but if we drop our pitch at the same level as the first drop that many times, then we'll get into vocal fry range). Essentially, we get a pitch pattern that looks like this (each row represents an exaggerated lower pitch than the one above):






Different from NHK, Kanshudo and OJAD suggest a rise at the beginning of each non-平板型 word in the sentence. The catch is that the rise for each word is only at a fraction of the initial rise2,3. In terms of frequency where higher frequency means higher pitch, if at the beginning of the sentence you raise your pitch to 130 Hz, then for any subsequent rises you would rise to 115 Hz. Though both these sources suggest rising at the start of every non-平板型 word, they also incorporate the idea of the entire pitch gradually decreasing from the onset of the sentence2,3. In effect, each subsequent rise after the first rise won't go to 115 Hz but, 112Hz, 110Hz, 105Hz, and so on (until the sentence ends, or you get vocal fry 😂). Overall, you get a similar effect to what NHK suggests with little bumps [indicated by the strikethrough] wherever there is a rise.


The final opinion we found regarding how to handle pitch accents after a drop is from UBC eNunciate. Apparently, when native Japanese speakers are speaking at a regular pace, the pitch stays low after a drop—ain't nobody got time to worry about rises and drops4. Out of the other two suggestions where you need to be conscientious with where the drop is, UBC eNunciate's suggestion is by far the most easygoing. Following their suggestion, we would get the following pitch accent:


Though these 3 sources suggest some different things, there is a common theme between them: "once you drop (your pitch) stay down".  The wrong way to handle the above sentence would be to return right back to your highest pitch after every word and produce a rollercoaster-like effect that NHK considers "unnatural"1.

へんなずぼんのおとこのこ âŒ

Though JPAD Parser represents words as a binary high and low, make sure to keep the ideas of sentence-level pitch accents in mind; any one of the above 3 treatments following a drop will work. JPAD Practice follows the suggestion from Kanshudo and OJAD for consistency and pitch number clarity, but again any of the above will work.

Although there might be a lot to digest, don't worry, just have fun with it! Listen to a lot of Japanese, practice with friends, or use JPAD's Practice tool and your pitch accent pronunciation will flourish in no time! Next up, we get into how conjugations affect the pitch accent pattern of an adjective. See you soon 😊

Check out this time's quiz to test your understanding.


2“Japanese pitch accent support.” (accessed Oct. 23, 2021).
3“OJAD - 韻律読み上げチュータ スズキクン.” (accessed Oct. 24, 2021).
4UBC eNunciate!, Japanese Pitch: Sentence-level, (Jun. 05, 2015). Accessed: Oct. 23, 2021. [Online Video]. Available: