The Quirks of Japanese Intonation

Japanese intonation eeIntonation is one of those things that we generally take for granted. A lot of times, we don’t really realize we are using different kinds of intonation patterns when we are speaking. We just end up doing it naturally without much thought. It is normally not even looked at in any kind of Japanese textbook and is often times not covered in class.

So, it is easy to pass it up and not think too much about Japanese intonation. Or worse yet, assume it is the exact same as your native language’s intonation. That’s what I used to do before I really started using the language on a frequent basis.

It is important to know how to use Japanese intonation because often times the meaning of the word can change depending on what kind of intonation you use. Or, you can simply just sound weird or have a hard time being understood. So being able to say it with the correct intonation is important.

The Trouble with ええ

ええ is a seemingly easy word to use. It is only two kana long and is probably one of the first words you learned to say in Japanese. It is kind of a casual ‘yes’. But, there is another meaning to this word as well. Another meaning is ‘grr!’ or ‘Must I?’ or ‘What?!?!?!’. These two definitions seem at odds with one another because how could one word possibly mean both things?

Well, it has everything to do with the intonation. If you say ええ with a flat or going down intonation, it has the meaning of ‘yeah’ or ‘yes’, but if you say it with a question intonation it has the meaning of ‘grrr!’ or ‘Must I?’. In order to explain this a little better I shot a short little video in front of my lovely 押入れ (Japanese-style closet):

These different intonation patterns are familiar to most native English speakers and so are a fairly easy to understand. But, there is a different kind of intonation that is used in Japanese too.

haSHI vs. HAshi

There are several words in the Japanese language that have the same pronunciation, but different meanings. There are a few of these like はし for chopsticks or a bridge; あめ for rain or for candy; and かみ for paper, hair, and god.

To differentiate between the two (or more) meanings, people will use different intonation. For example, to say bridge we would say haSHI, but for chopsticks it would be HAshi. Those syllables would be stressed.

But, this intonation is a slightly different kind of intonation than what we are used to in English. The intonation is a difference in tone not in volume. In other words, in Japan, words that are stressed are a slightly higher pitch and not volume usually

Doug 陀愚 explains this beautifully over at his awesome blog. He also published a handy video of his kid’s toy that illustrates this as well:

Those Non-Standard Folk down in Kansai

This difference in intonation is pretty challenging to most learner’s of Japanese. But, just to make things more challenging, different parts of the country will use different kinds of intonation. One place that seems determined to do everything completely different than Tokyo, where the standard dialect is spoken, is Osaka and the Kansai region in general.

In a place where people understand a red light as a warning to look both ways before crossing the street, they will sometimes switch the intonation patterns for words. Not all of them of course, that would be too easy. They just change a few in order to confuse the visitors.

One example, is ame for rain or candy. In Kansai, people will say Ame for candy and aME for rain, but in standard dialect it is different.

So, should you take the time to memorize every single one of these? Probably not, just keep in mind that if you live in a place (in Japan) that doesn’t speak the standard dialect or if you are talking a lot to people with a non-standard dialect, you will have to do some standard dialect listening to prepare for the test.

As a side note, most Japanese people will find a foreigner speaking non-standard Japanese a little funny or strange, but it definitely isn’t wrong. Others might actually find it quite cool and appreciate the fact that you have obviously talked to a lot of people from that area. So speaking a non-standard dialect isn’t bad in general, but the test will cover only the standard dialect.

What about your intonation?

Do you have trouble with a particular set of words? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by Chris Willis

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Tim April 16, 2012, 11:26 am

    I came across はち vs はち a couple of months back, but after questioning a few teachers recently, I got conflicting ideas regarding intonation. Some people believe it is obsolete to differentiate, and no one cares anymore about stressing the difference between words like はし, はち or かみ. So I don’t know what to believe. I honestly hadn’t noticed a difference between words, and no one had mentioned it before; which makes me wonder if indeed it isn’t such a big deal.

    After all, Japanese is a very contextual language. You drop heaps of information and leave the listener guessing anyway. So what’s wrong with throwing out some odd intonation in the process? :p

    Much bigger fish to fry than trying to remember (or even aurally recognise) the stress points on words. 🙂

    • Mac April 17, 2012, 2:50 pm

      Yeah, I didn’t mean to suggest memorizing each one. These are things you are just going to have to pick up naturally through hearing it repeatedly and using it repeatedly. I don’t think it makes that big of a difference, but you can occasionally be misunderstood with incorrect intonation.

      I’ve said something in Japanese that were the exact syllables I needed to say, but Japanese people have no idea what I’m saying. Then, after a bit of experimentation they finally, say ohh, 分かった! and repeat back to me what I thought I just told them 🙂 I guess it is something to be aware of more than be studied, yeah?

      • Yanyan August 13, 2015, 10:09 pm

        Maybe it’s intonation, maybe it’s partly your pronunciation? When I listened to your ええ video I couldn’t help hearing you don’t pronounce it cleanly as “ee”, you sound “ei” (almost like slang “ayyy mates”?) like most of those whose native language is an Indo-European one when they speak Japanese. To me the difference is huge as I speak a language in which we pronounce as we write and long vowels either are “clean” (no diphthong-ey and not ending with “h” sound) or the meaning is very different from cleanly pronounced one.

        Japanese has lots of cases in which you may write a diphthong but pronounce it as a long clean vowel but I can’t remember one case that goes the other way around, pronouncing long vowel as a diphthong.

  • Timothy Takemoto timtak August 3, 2017, 4:11 am

    I tested some Japanese and found that they could not convey the various meanings of hashi via intonation (but I may have included hashi as edge as well).

    • Clayton MacKnight August 23, 2017, 12:42 pm

      Well, it depends on region as well as context. It’s quite difficult to put someone on the spot and test them like that. Anyway, with the talent I use we are regularly checking intonation to make sure it matches Tokyo dialect. They seem to think there is a difference. Not a big one mind you. You’ll still be understandable.

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