Chiyuki Ito and Michael J. Kenstowicz
Typologically, pitch-accent languages stand between stress languages like Spanish and tone languages like Shona, and share properties of both. In a stress language, typically just one syllable per word is accented and bears the major stress (cf. Spanish sábana ‘sheet,’ sabána ‘plain,’ panamá ‘Panama’). In a tone language, the number of distinctions grows geometrically with the size of the word. So in Shona, which contrasts high versus low tone, trisyllabic words have eight possible pitch patterns. In a canonical pitch-accent language such as Japanese, just one syllable (or mora) per word is singled out as distinctive, as in Spanish. Each syllable in the word is assigned a high or low tone (as in Shona); however, this assignment is predictable based on the location of the accented syllable.
The Korean dialects spoken in the southeast Kyengsang and northeast Hamkyeng regions retain the pitch-accent distinctions that developed by the period of Middle Korean (15th–16th centuries). For example, in Hamkyeng a three-syllable word can have one of four possible pitch patterns, which are assigned by rules that refer to the accented syllable. The accented syllable has a high tone, and following syllables have low tones. Then the high tone of the accented syllable spreads up to the initial syllable, which is low. Thus, /MUcike/ ‘rainbow’ is realized as high-low-low, /aCImi/ ‘aunt’ is realized as low-high-low, and /menaRI/ ‘parsley’ is realized as low-high-high. An atonic word such as /cintallɛ/ ‘azalea’ has the same low-high-high pitch pattern as ‘parsley’ when realized alone. But the two types are distinguished when combined with a particle such as /MAN/ ‘only’ that bears an underlying accent: /menaRI+MAN/ ‘only parsely’ is realized as low-high-high-low while /cintallɛ+MAN/ ‘only azelea’ is realized as low-high-high-high. This difference can be explained by saying that the underlying accent on the particle is deleted if the stem bears an accent. The result is that only one syllable per word may bear an accent (similar to Spanish). On the other hand, since the accent is realized with pitch distinctions, tonal assimilation rules are prevalent in pitch-accent languages.
This article begins with a description of the Middle Korean pitch-accent system and its evolution into the modern dialects, with a focus on Kyengsang. Alternative synchronic analyses of the accentual alternations that arise when a stem is combined with inflectional particles are then considered. The discussion proceeds to the phonetic realization of the contrasting accents, their realizations in compounds and phrases, and the adaptation of loanwords. The final sections treat the lexical restructuring and variable distribution of the pitch accents and their emergence from predictable word-final accent in an earlier stage of Proto-Korean.