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Pitch Accents: 戦闘(0) and 銭湯(1)

Today's Makoto Letter is brought to you by the words 戦闘【せんとう (0)】 (battle) and 銭湯【せんとう (1)】 (public bath).)


battle; fight; combat


public bath; sento

First note that when written in ro-maji, both 戦闘(せんとう) (battle) and 銭湯(せんとう) (public bath) look identical: sentou

That's reason #963,334 why ro-maji should be avoided like the ペスト (plague; yes, "the (black) plague" is ペスト in Japanese, maybe because it was started by pests (rats) -- actually, I believe it is from the German.).

However, if you are familiar with the kanji, you can easily tell the difference in meaning.

I realize it is easy to say "if you are familiar..." but the more kanji you learn, the easier reading becomes. Try to make learning kanji fun. To me, even as a beginner, kanji was fascinating, exotic, and fun. If you can learn to see kanji in that way, believe me, your Japanese will be better for it.

Back to my main point with today's example. There is a difference in pitch accents: seNTOU (battle) versus SEntou (public bath).

Go ahead and listen to the above sound files again, and then we'll discuss...

Pitch Accents

Pitch accents aren't critical for understanding, and it is true different regions of Japan have very different pitch accent patterns, but learning standard (Tokyo) Japanese pitch accents as you learn words isn't a hard thing to do, and it will greatly help improve your pronunciation down the road. Just jot a number to represent where the pitch accent falls as you add new words to your flashcard system (Anki or paper). 

We'll get to how to look up pitch accents below.

But for now, let's return to our example:  戦闘せんとう (battle) and 銭湯せんとう (public bath)

  • 戦闘せんとう (battle) is flat. This is called 平板型 heiban gata. It is sometimes marked with a zero (0). This means it starts low, goes high, and stays high for each mora. [LHHH]  seNTOU

  • 銭湯せんとう (public bath) is 頭高型 atama daka gata. This is marked with a one (1). This means it starts high (the atama), goes down, and stays down. [HLLL] SEntou

Take a moment now and listen to the two sound files over and over until you get it. If you are not used to hearing the differences between pitch accents, this is going to take a few tries. But keep playing the sound files until your ears are able to hear the subtle difference between 戦闘せんとう (battle; LHHH) and 銭湯せんとう (public bath; HLLL)


battle; fight; combat


public bath; sento

Did you hear it? seNTOU versus SEntou. 

FLASHCARDS with Numbers

When I add new words to my flashcard app (I use Anki), I try to mark the pitch accent if it isn't heiban, since it seems most words are heiban. It only takes a second more and really helps later as I review that card.

For 戦闘せんとう (battle) and 銭湯せんとう (public bath), I actually have a card that looks like this:

These are words I already "know" so I didn't write the kana or meanings, but made the card because I couldn't remember the pitch accent. If these words are new to you, you might make cards for each word or group them together like I did but with the pronunciation (in kana) and meaning too.

  • [FRONT] 戦闘 銭湯
  • [BACK] 戦闘 せんとう (0) battle; fight; combat + 銭湯 せんとう (1) sento, public bath

Adding numbers (0) and (1) just takes me an extra second beyond what I normally do.

Looking Up the Pitch Accents

You might wonder how you can look up pitch accents. NHK's Pitch Accent dictionary is best, but it isn't cheap. I do have the NHK app for my iPhone (it was about $30-40 USD) and I do use it often, but there is a free and easier way to look up the pitch accent.

If you use Yomichan in your browser, install the free "Kanjium" pitch dictionary. It makes looking up words so easy and did I mention it's free? https://foosoft.net/projects/yomichan/#dictionaries

Simply hold down the shift key while mousing over a Japanese word. Here's an example from last week's Nihongo no Tane:  https://makotoplus.com/podcast-nihongonotane-82-m/

See the yellow area I highlighted? The number tells you where the pitch falls and the line above illustrates it. It's that simple.

  • (0) means the pitch doesn't fall (heiban). It starts low, goes up, and stays up. [LHHH...]
  • (1) means the pitch falls after the first mora (atama daka) [HLLL...]
  • (2) means the pitch falls after the second mora [LHL]
  • (3) means the pitch falls after the third mora [LHHL]

The only tricky one is (1) because it starts high. All the others start low like (0) Heiban.

One pitch accent rule to remember is once the accent drops in a word, it won't go back up until the next word.

Let's wrap this up with a super useful sentence to help illustrate today's two words.


After the battle, let's go to the public bath!

Remember this for your next battle. I'm sure you'll need a bath afterward.

See, I only give you useful examples.

P.S. If you are wanting a deep dive into pitch accents, there's nothing better than Dogen's Patreon phonetics lesson

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  • Note on the origin of ペスト — the ultimate origin goes back to Latin “pestis” which evolved into the French (la) peste. One of the monuments of 20th century French literature was Albert Camus’ novel “La Peste” about a mysterious plague which invaded and overwhelmed Oran, Algeria (his native city). [The plague was a reference to the Nazi occupation of France and the rest of Europe and North Africa. Camus fought against Nazism in the French underground (‘partisans’). The novel shows the different ways people reacted, with heroism or with cowardice, with empathy or with egotism.] The word was adopted into German as “Pest”, alongside the more common “Plage”, but I do not know if the Japanese borrowed the word from French, German or another language. (Dutch?). Wiki says it is German; japandict.net says it is Dutch.

  • I will never forget this, that’s for sure. 😀 I have had Yomichan for a while now, and I love it. Especially because they have real humans pronouncing the words 🙂

    • Haha. That’s great. I’m glad it helped.

      The tools we students have now is nothing short of amazing. When I started with Japanese in the 1990s we had clunky electronic dictionaries which were slow, limited, and difficult to use (they were mostly made for Japanese learning English). But in the day, it amazed everyone. Today, dictionaries are free apps and far more powerful.

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