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Pitch accent is a linguistic term of convenience for a variety of restricted tone systems that use variations in pitch to give prominence to a syllable or mora within a word. The placement of this tone or the way it is realized can give different meanings to otherwise similar words. The term has been used to describe the Scandinavian languages, Serbian, Croatian, Ancient Greek, Japanese, some dialects of Korean, and Shanghainese. Pitch accent is often described as being intermediate between tone and stress, but it is not a concept that is required to describe any language, nor is there a coherent definition for pitch accent.[1]

Proto-Indo-European accent is usually reconstructed as a free[2] pitch-accent system[3], preserved in Ancient Greek, Vedic, and Proto-Balto-Slavic. The Greek and Indic systems were lost: pitch produced stress accent in Modern Greek), and was lost entirely from Indic by the time of the Prākrits. Balto-Slavic retained Proto-Indo-European pitch accent, reworking it into the opposition of "acute" (rising) and "circumflex" (falling) tone, and which, following a period of extensive accentual innovations, yielded pitch-accent based system that has been retained in modern-day Lithuanian and West South Slavic languages (in most dialects). Some other modern IE languages have pitch accent systems, like Swedish and Norwegian, deriving from a stress-based system they inherited from Old Norse,[4] and Panjabi, which developed tone distinctions that maintained lexical distinctions as consonants were conflated.

Pitch accent is not a coherently defined term, but is used to describe a variety of systems that are on the simple side of tone (simpler than Yoruba or Mandarin) and on the complex side of stress (more complex than English or Spanish).



Firstly, while the primary indication of accent is pitch (tone), there is only one tonic syllable or mora in a word, or at least in simple words, the position of which determines the tonal pattern of the whole word. Pitch accent may also be restricted in distribution, being found for example only on one of the last two syllables. This is unlike the situation in typical tone languages, where the tone of each syllable is independent of the other syllables in the word. For example, comparing two-syllable words like [aba] in a pitch-accented language and in a tonal language, both of which make only a binary distinction, the tonal language has four possible patterns:


  • low-low [àbà],
  • high-high [ábá],
  • high-low [ábà],
  • low-high [àbá].

The pitch-accent language, on the other hand, has only three possibilities:

Pitch accent:

  • accented on the first syllable, [ába],
  • accented on the second syllable, [abá], or
  • no accent [aba].

The combination *[ábá] does not occur.

With longer words, the distinction becomes more apparent: eight distinct tonal trisyllables [ábábá, ábábà, ábàbá, àbábá, ábàbà, àbábà, àbàbá, àbàbà], vs. four distinct pitch-accented trisyllables [ábaba, abába, ababá, ababa].


Secondly, there may be more than one pitch possible for the tonic syllable. For example, for some languages the pitch may be either high or low. That is, if the stress is on the first syllable, it may be either [ába] or [àba] (or [ábaba] and [àbaba]). In stress-accent systems, on the other hand, there is no such variation: accented syllables are simply louder. (If there is secondary stress in a stress-accent language, as is sometimes claimed for English, there must always be a primary stress as well; such languages do not contrast [ˈaba] with primary stress only from [ˌaba] with secondary stress only.) In addition, many lexical words may have no tonic syllable at all, whereas normally in stress-accent languages every lexical word must have a stressed syllable; also, whereas non-compound words may have more than one stress-accented syllable, as in English, multiple pitch-accent words are not normally found.

Other usage[]

In a wider and less common sense of the term, "pitch accent" is sometimes also used to describe intonation, such as methods of conveying surprise, changing a statement into a question, or expressing information flow (topic-focus, contrasting), using variations in pitch. A great number of languages use pitch in this way, including English as well as all other major European languages. They are often called intonation languages.

Norwegian and Swedish[]

Main article: Swedish phonology#Stress and pitch

Most dialects differentiate between two kinds of accents. Often referred to as acute and grave accent, they may also be referred to as accent 1 and accent 2 or tone 1 and tone 2. Hundreds of two-syllable word pairs are differentiated only by their use of either grave or acute accent. Accent 1 is, generally speaking, used for words whose second syllable is the definite article, and for words that in Old Norse were monosyllabic. (Although also some dialects of Danish use tonal word accents, in most Danish dialects so called stød functions to the very same end.)

These are described as tonal word accents by Scandinavian linguists, because there is a set number of tone patterns for polysyllabic words (in this case, two) that is independent of the number of syllables in the word; in more prototypical pitch-accent languages, the number of possible tone patterns is not set but increases in proportion to the number of syllables.

For example in many East Norwegian dialects, the word "bønder" (farmers) is pronounced using tone 1, while "bønner" (beans or prayers) uses tone 2. Though the difference in spelling occasionally allow the words to be distinguished in written language, in most cases the minimal pairs are written alike. A Swedish example would be the word "tomten," which means "Santa Claus" (or "the house gnome") when pronounced using tone 2, and means "the plot of land," "the yard," or "the garden" when pronounced using tone 1. Thus, the sentence "Är det tomten på tomten?" ("Is that Santa Claus out in the yard?") uses both pronunciations right next to each other.

Although most dialects make this distinction, the actual realizations vary and are generally difficult for non-natives to distinguish. In some dialects of Swedish, including those spoken in Finland, this distinction is absent. There are significant variations in the realization of pitch accent between dialects. Thus, in most of western and northern Norway (the so-called high-pitch dialects) accent 1 is falling, while accent 2 is rising in the first syllable and falling in the second syllable or somewhere around the syllable boundary.

The word accents give Norwegian and Swedish a "singing" quality which makes it fairly easy to distinguish them from other languages.

West South Slavic languages[]

Late Proto-Slavic accentual system was based on the fundamental opposition of short/long circumflex (falling) tone, and the acute (rising) tone, position of the ictus being free as is the state of affairs inherited from Proto-Balto-Slavic. Common Slavic accentual innovations significantly reworked the original system primarily with respect to the position of the ictus (Dybo's law, Illič-Svityč's law, Meillet's law etc.), and further developments yielded some new accents—e.g. the so-called neoacute (Ivšić's law), or the new rising tone in Neoštokavian idioms (the so-called "Neoštokavian retraction"). As opposed to other Slavic dialect subgroups, West South Slavic idioms have largely retained the Proto-Slavic system of free and mobile tonal accent (including the dialect used for basis of codification of modern standard Slovene, as well as Neoštokavian used for the basis of standard Croatian and Serbian), though the discrepancy between codified norm and actually spoken speech may significantly vary.[5].

Serbian and Croatian languages[]

Neoštokavian idiom used for the basis of standard Croatian and Serbian distinguishes four types of pitch accents: short falling < ̏>, short rising <̀>, long falling < ̑> and long rising <´>. The accent is said to be relatively free as it can be manifested in any syllable but the last one. The long accents are realized by pitch change within the long vowel; the short ones are realized by the pitch difference from the subsequent syllable.[6] . Accent alternations are very frequent in inflectional paradigms, both by quality and placement in the word (the so-called "mobile paradigms", which were present in the PIE itself but in Proto-Balto-Slavic have became much more widespread). Different inflected forms of the same lexeme can exhibit all four accents: lònac 'pot' (nominative sg.), lónca (genitive sg.), lȏnci (nominative pl.), lȍnācā (genitive pl.).

Restrictions on the distribution of the accent depend, beside the position of the syllable, also on its quality, as not every kind of accent can be manifested in every syllable.

  1. Falling tone generally occurs in monosyllabic words or the first syllable of a word (pȃs 'belt', rȏg 'horn'; bȁba 'old woman', lȃđa 'river ship'; kȕćica 'small house', Kȃrlovac). The only exception to this rule are the interjections, i.e. words uttered in the state of excitement (ahȁ, ohȏ)
  2. Rising tone generally occurs in every syllable of a word beside the ultimate or in the monosyllabics (vòda 'water', lȗka 'harbour'; lìvada 'meadow', lúpānje 'slam'; siròta 'female orphan', počétak 'beginning'; crvotòčina 'wormhole', oslobođénje 'liberation').

Thus, monosyllabics generally have falling tone, whilst polysyllabics generally have falling or rising tone on the first syllable, and rising in all the other syllables but the last one. The tonal opposition rising ~ falling is hence generally only possible in the first accented syllable of polysyllabic words, while the opposition by lengths, long ~ short, is possible even in the non-accented syllable as well as in the post-accented syllable (but not in the pre-accented position).

Proclitics (clitics which latch on to a following word), on the other hand, may "steal" a falling tone (but not a rising tone) from the following mono- or disyllabic word. This stolen accent is always short, and may end up being either falling or rising on the proclitic. This phenomenon (accent shift to proclitic) is most frequent in the spoken idioms of Bosnia, in Serbian it is more limited (normally, with negation proclitic ne), and is almost absent from Croatian Neoštokavian idioms.[7] Short rising accent resists such shift better than the falling one (as seen in the example /ʒěliːm/→/ne‿ʒěliːm/)

in isolation with proclitic
Croatian Serbian Bosnian English
rising /ʒěliːm/ I want /ne‿ʒěliːm/ I don't want
/zǐːma/ winter /u‿zîːmu/ /û‿ziːmu/ in the winter
/nemɔgǔːtɕnɔst/ inability /u‿nemɔgǔːtɕnɔsti/ not being able to
falling /vîdiːm/ I see /ně‿vidiːm/ I can't see
/grâːd/ city /u‿grâːd/ /û‿graːd/ to the city (stays falling)
/ʃûma/ forest /u‿ʃûmi/ /ǔ‿ʃumi/ in the forest (becomes rising)

Slovenian language[]

In Slovenian, there are two concurrent standard accentual systems - the older, tonal, with three "pitch accents", and younger, dynamic (i.e. stress-based) with distinctive length only. The stress-based system was introduced because two thirds of Slovenia does not have tonal accent anymore. In practice, however, even the stress-based accentual system is just an abstract ideal and speakers generally retain their own organic idiom even when trying to speak standard Slovenian (e.g. the speakers of urban idioms at the west of Slovenia which have not distinctive lengths don't introduce that kind of quantitative opposition when speaking the standard language).

Older accentual system, as it was said, is tonal by quality and free (jágoda 'strawberry', malína 'raspberry', gospodár 'master, lord'). There are three kinds of accents: short falling <̀>, long falling < ̑> and long rising <´>. Non-final syllables always have long accents ( ̑ or ´), e.g rakîta 'crustacea', tetíva 'sinew'. Short falling accent can come only in the ultimate (or the only, as is the case in monosyllabics) syllable, e.g. bràt 'brother'. It is only there that three-way opposition among accents is present: deskà 'board' : blagọ̑  'goods, ware' : gospá 'lady'. Accent can be mobile throughout the inflectional paradigm: dȃrdarȃ, góra — gorẹ́goràm, bràt — brátao brȃtu, kráva — krȃv, vóda — vodọ̑na vọ̑do). The distinction is made between open –e- and –o- (either long and short) and closed -ẹ- and -ọ- (always long).


Main article: Japanese pitch accent

Japanese is often described as having pitch accent. However, it is found in only about 20% of Japanese words; 80% are unaccented. This "accent" may be characterized as a downstep rather than as pitch accent. The pitch of a word rises until it reaches a downstep, then drops abruptly. In a two-syllable word, this results in a contrast between high-low and low-high; accentless words are also low-high, but the pitch of following enclitics differentiates them.[8]

Accent on first mora Accent on second mora Accentless
[kaki‿o] 牡蠣 oyster [kaki‿o] fence [kaki‿o] persimmon
high-low-low low-high-low low-mid-high


Standard Seoul Korean uses only pitch for prosodic purposes. However, several dialects outside Seoul retain a Middle Korean pitch accent system. In the dialect of North Gyeongsang, in southeastern South Korea, any one syllable may have pitch accent in the form of a high tone, as may the initial two syllables. For example, in trisyllabic words, there are four possible tone patterns:[9]

IPA English
mé.nu.ɾi daughter-in-law
ə.mú.i mother
wə.nə.mín native speaker
ó.ɾé.pi elder brother


The Shanghai dialect of Wu Chinese is marginally tonal, with characteristics of pitch accent.

Not counting closed syllables (those with a final glottal stop), a Shanghainese word of one syllable may carry one of three tones, high, mid, low. (These tones have a contour in isolation, but for our purposes that can be ignored.) However, low always occurs after voiced consonants, and only there. Thus the only tonal distinction is after voiceless consonants and in vowel-initial syllables, and then there is only a two-way distinction between high and mid. In a polysyllabic word, the tone of the first syllable determines the tone of the entire word. If the first tone is high, following syllables are mid; if mid or low, the second syllable is high, and any following syllables are mid. Thus a mark for high tone is all that is needed to write tone in Shanghainese:

Romanzi Hanzi Pitch pattern English
Voiced initial zaunheinin 上海人 low-high-mid Shanghaier
No voiced initial (mid tone) aodaliya 澳大利亚 mid-high-mid-mid Australia
No voiced initial (high tone) kónkonchitso 公共汽車 high-mid-mid-mid bus

Autosegmental-metrical theory[]

"Pitch accent" is a term used in autosegmental-metrical theory for local intonational features that are associated with particular syllables. Within this framework, pitch accents are distinguished from both the abstract metrical stress and the acoustic stress of a syllable. Different languages specify different relationships between pitch accent and stress placement.

Pitch accents[]


Languages vary in terms of whether pitch accents must be associated with syllables that are perceived as prominent or stressed.[10] For example, in French and Indonesian, pitch accents may be associated with syllables that are not acoustically stressed, while in English and Swedish, syllables that receive pitch accents are also stressed.[11] Languages also vary in terms of whether pitch accents are assigned lexically or post-lexically. Lexical pitch accents are associated with particular syllables within words in the lexicon, and can serve to distinguish between segmentally similar words. Post-lexical pitch accents are assigned to words in phrases according to their context in the sentence and conversation. Within this word, the pitch accent is associated with the syllable marked as metrically strong in the lexicon. Post-lexical pitch accents do not change the identity of the word, but rather how the word fits into the conversation. The stress/no-stress distinction and the lexical/post-lexical distinction create a typology of languages with regards to their use of pitch accents.[11]

Stress No Stress
Lexical Swedish Japanese
Post-lexical English Bengali

Languages that use lexical pitch accents are described as pitch accent languages, in contrast to tone/tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese and Yoruba. Pitch accent languages differ from tone languages in that pitch accents are only assigned to one syllable in a word, whereas tones can be assigned to multiple syllables in a word.


Pitch accents consist of a high (H) or low (L) pitch target or a combination of H and L targets. H and L indicate relative highs and lows in the intonation contour, and their actual phonetic realization is conditioned by a number of factors, such as pitch range and preceding pitch accents in the phrase. In languages in which pitch accents are associated with stressed syllables, one target within each pitch accent may be designated with a *, indicating that this target is aligned with the stressed syllable. For example, in the L*+H pitch accent the L target is aligned with the stressed syllable, and it is followed by a trailing H target.

This model of pitch accent structure differs from that of the British School, which described pitch accents in terms of 'configurations' like rising or falling tones.[12] It also differs from the American Structuralists' system, in which pitch accents were made up of some combination of low, mid, high, and overhigh tones.[13] Evidence favoring the two-level system over other systems includes data from African tone languages and Swedish. One-syllable words in Efik (an African tone language) can have high, low, or rising tones, which would lead us to expect nine possible tone combinations for two-syllable words. However, we only find H-H, L-L, and L-H tone combinations in two-syllable words. This finding makes sense if we consider the rising tone to consist of an L tone followed by an H tone, making it possible to describe one- and two-syllable words using the same set of tones.[11] Bruce also found that alignment of the peak of a Swedish pitch accent, rather than the alignment of a rise or fall, reliably distinguished between the two pitch accent types in Swedish.[14] Systems with several target levels often over-predict the number of possible combinations of pitch targets.

Edge tones[]

Within autosegmental-metrical theory, pitch accents are combined with edge tones, which mark the beginnings and/or ends of prosodic phrases, to determine the intonational contour of a phrase. The need for pitch accents to be distinguished from edge tones can be seen in contours (1) and (2) in which the same intonational events - an H* pitch accent followed by an L- phrase accent and a H% boundary tone - are applied to phrases of different lengths. Note that in both cases, the pitch accent remains linked to the stressed syllable and the edge tone remains at the end of the phrase. Just as the same contour can apply to different phrases (e.g. (1) and (2)), different contours can apply to the same phrase, as in (2) and (3). In (3) the H* pitch accent is replaced with an L* pitch accent.




Nuclear and prenuclear pitch accents[]

Pitch accents can be divided into nuclear and prenuclear pitch accents. The nuclear pitch accent is defined as the head of a prosodic phrase. It is the most important accent in the phrase and perceived as the most prominent. In English it is the last pitch accent in a prosodic phrase. If there is only one pitch accent in a phrase, it is automatically the nuclear pitch accent. Nuclear pitch accents are phonetically distinct from prenuclear pitch accents, but these differences are predictable.[15]


Pitch accents in English serve as a cue to prominence, along with duration, intensity, and spectral composition. Pitch accents are made up of a high (H) or low (L) pitch target or a combination of an H and an L target. The pitch accents of English used in the ToBI prosodic transcription system are: H*, L*, L*+H, L+H*, and H+!H*.[16]

Most theories of prosodic meaning in English claim that pitch accent placement is tied to the focus, or most important part, of the phrase. Some theories of prosodic marking of focus are only concerned with nuclear pitch accents.

See also[]



  1. Larry Hyman, "Word-Prosodic Typology", Phonology (2006), 23: 225-257 Cambridge University Press
  2. The term free here refers to the position of the accent—its position was unpredictable by phonological rules, i.e. it could stand on any syllable of a word, regardless of its structure. This is opposed to fixed or bounded accent whose position is determined by factors such as the syllable quantity and/or position, e.g. in Latin where it's on the penultimate syllable if it's "heavy", antepenultimate otherwise.
  3. Fortson IV (2004:62) "From the available comparative evidence, it is standardly agreed that PIE was a pitch-accent language. There are numerous indications that the accented syllable was higher in pitch than the surrounding syllables. Among the IE daughters, a pitch-accent system is found in Vedic Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, the Baltic languages and some South Slavic languages, although none of these preserves the original system intact."
  4. Proto-Germanic had fixed accent on the first syllable of a phonetic word, a state of affairs preserved in oldest attested Germanic languages like Gothic, Old English and Old Norse. Free PIE accent was lost in Germanic rather late, after the operation of Verner's law.
  5. E.g. the accentual system of the spoken idiom of the Croatian capital Zagreb is stress-based and does not make use of distinctive vowel lengths.
  6. Lexical, Pragmatic, and Positional Effects on Prosody in Two Dialects of Croatian and Serbian, Rajka Smiljanic, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-97117-9
  7. A Handbook of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, Wayles Brown and Theresa Alt, SEELRC 2004
  8. Pierrehumbert, Janet; Beckman, Mary (1988), Japanese Tone Structure, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA 
  9. The Prosodic Structure and Pitch Accent of Northern Kyungsang Korean, Jun et al., JEAL 2005[]
  10. Beckman, Mary (1986), Stress and Non-stress Accent, Foris Publications: Dordrecht 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Ladd, D. Robert (1996), Intonational Phonology, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK 
  12. Bolinger, Dwight (1951), Intonation: levels verrsus configurations., Word 7, p. 199-210 
  13. Pike, Kenneth L. (1945), The Intonation of American English, University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor 
  14. Bruce, Gösta (1977), Swedish word accents in sentence perspective, Developing the Swedish intonation model, Working Papers, Department of Linguistics and Phonetics, University of Lund 
  15. Silverman, Kim; Pierrehumbert, Janet (1990), The timing of prenuclear high accents in English., Kingston and Beckman 
  16. Hirschberg, Julia; Beckman, Mary (1994), ToBI Annotation Conventions, 


  • This usage of the term 'pitch accent' was proposed by Bolinger (1958), taken up by Pierrehumbert (1980), and described in Ladd (1996).
  • Bolinger, Dwight, "A theory of pitch accent in English", Word 14: 109-49, 1958 .
  • Ladd, Robert D. (1996), Intonational Phonology, Cambridge University Press 
  • Pierrehumbert, Janet (1980). "The phonlogy and phonetics of English intonation" (PDF). PhD thesis, MIT, Published 1988 by IULC. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  • Fortson IV, Benjamin W. (2004), Indo-European Language and Culture, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 1-4051-0316-7 

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