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Flattening Accents Posted by on Mar 15, 2021 in Culture, Language, Pronunciation

I have been always interested in teenage vernacular (特有の言葉 tokuyu no kotoba).  My senior thesis was on the teenage vernacular in Southern California.  Teenagers are experts (専門家senmonka) in creating new words as they are not bound by rules.  They are creative in any language.

Some new words are born and die, while others gain status to be used on TV even on the news, lose the hipness, and are abandoned by the young creators.  One of the significant changes I noticed in the 1990s was a change in accent in some vocabularies.  Note that the conventional accents described here are ones used in Tokyo.  Young people have started to flatten accents. This trend is called “flattening accents” (アクセントの平板化 akusento no heibanka.)  Some words added a new meaning by altering the traditional accents (Table 1).

Table 1

Vocabulary Original AccentsOriginal Meaning(s)New AccentsNew Meaning
クラブ(club)ク\ラブ- an organization that is created by people with a common interest
- an expensive drinking venue catered to corporate executives
クラブ¯a hip dance club popular among hip young people
ネット(net)ネ\ットa device to catch fish etcネット¯internet
ライン(line)ラ\インa straight one- dimensional figure ライン¯The largest SNS in Japan

While Table 2 shows vocabularies that young people simply changed the traditional accents without altering or adding meanings.

(Table 2)

VocabularyOriginal AccentsNew AccentsMeaning
ショップ(shoppu)ショ\ップショップ¯shop
モデル(moderu)モ\デルモデル¯model
グーグル(guuguru)グ\ーグルグーグル¯google
彼氏(kareshi)か\れしかれし¯boyfriend
図書館(toshokan)としょ\かんとしょかん¯library

NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, a research arm established by NHK (Japanese public broadcaster,) added acceptable accents of 3300 words in 2016 based on “appropriateness” in broadcasting instead of correct/incorrect.

Not surprisingly, the flattening accents are more prevailed and accepted among young people.  As a former sociolinguistics student, I have no problem accepting changes in language especially the changes that involve more than accents as in Table 1.  However, some changes in accents are hard even to say! レ\タス(lettus  retasu) isレタス¯ and メ\ニュー (menu) can be メニュー¯.  As a Tokyoite for generations, they sound like regional dialects (方言  hougen)!

Another aspect is that a group of people who shares a profession or interest chooses to use terminology with flattened accents.  It is called Professional Accents (専門家アクセントsenmonka akusento).  For instance, musicians may say ドラム¯  (drum,  doramu) instead of  ド\ラム、and ギター¯ instead of ギ\ター (guitar,  gita-).  This is like how teenagers identify themselves as a group by using a word and expression that they develop.

Lastly, we are in the Reiwa 3 (令和 Reiwa).  There was a discussion where the accent was in Reiwa.  Is it れ\いわ or れいわ¯?Every broadcasting company was debating how to announce it.  According to the Japanese government, only kanji and reading of the era are fixed, and accent and intonation are free to interpret.

The bottom is the flattening accent.  “わ” in れいわ has a slightly stress.

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Clker-Free-Vector-ImagesによるPixabayからの画像

I understand that there are many who disapprove of the trend, but the language is alive and changing all the time.  This trend may continue and spread to more words, or this trend may end and reverse its course.  Only time will tell.

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