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date: 30 April 2017

Accent in Japanese Phonology

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

The word accent system of Tokyo Japanese might look quite complex. with its number of accent patterns and rules. However, recent research has shown that it is not as complex as has been assumed if one incorporates the notion of markedness into the analysis: nouns have only two productive accent patterns: (a) the antepenultimate and unaccented patterns, as opposed to (b) multiple patterns. Seemingly different accent rules can be generalized if one focuses on these productive accent patterns.

The word accent system raises some new interesting issues. One of them concerns the fact that a majority of nouns are “unaccented,” that is, they are pronounced with a rather flat pitch pattern, apparently violating the principle of obligatoriness. A careful analysis of noun accentuation reveals that this strange accent pattern occurs in some linguistically predictable structures. In morphologically simplex nouns, it typically tends to emerge in four-mora nouns ending in a sequence of light syllables. In compound nouns, on the other hand, it emerges due to multiple factors, such as compound-final de-accenting or pseudo-de-accenting morphemes, certain syntactic categories, as well as some prosodic configurations.

Japanese pitch accent exhibits an interesting aspect in its interactions with other phonological and linguistic structures. For example, the accent of compound nouns is closely related with rendaku, or sequential voicing, which is also characteristic of compounds: the choice between the accented and unaccented patterns in certain types of compound nouns correlates with the presence or absence of the sequential voicing. Moreover, whether the compound accent rule applies to a certain compound depends on its internal morphosyntactic configuration as well as its meaning; alternatively, the compound accent rule is blocked in certain types of morphosyntactic and semantic structures.

Japanese pitch accent also displays interesting features in the domains beyond the word. For example, it actively participates in downstep, an intonational process by which word accent lowers the pitch range of subsequent materials in the same utterance. It also exhibits intriguing properties with respect to the ways accent neutralization is avoided in sentence-level phonology.

Finally, careful analysis of word accent sheds new light on the syllable structure of the language, notably on two interrelated questions about diphthonghood and super-heavy syllables. It provides crucial insight into diphthongs, or the question of which vowel sequence constitutes a diphthong as against vowel sequences across syllable boundaries. It also presents new evidence against trimoraic syllables in the language.