Rhythm & Spacing

People talk a lot about the pitches of words in Japanese, but I don’t hear much talk about the rhythm of Japanese, which, in my opinion, is just as important. Sometimes there will be a brief pause after certain words (in particular, after some particles). Other times, there is almost no space between words and particles. This, combined with proper intonation, gives Japanese it’s somewhat melodic qualities—like everyone is hitting the same bumps in the road.

There's a great example of this in my Toby in Tokyo video series, when the character Miki is listing the foods that she loves. Here’s a slightly truncated version of what she says…

好きな食べ物は
カニと
お寿司と
ラーメンと
おそばと
うどんと
カレーライスと
オムライスと
焼肉です!
suki na tabemono wa kani to osushi to raamen to osoba to udon to kareeraisu to omuraisu to yakiniku desu!
My favorite foods are crab, sushi, ramen, soba, udon, curry rice, omelet rice, and yakiniku!

When Japanese people list things, connecting them with と (to), which means “and,” they will usually put a space between と (to) and the following word. There’s also usually a slightly longer pause between は (wa), the “topic marker” (← I’ll talk about this a lot later). So it actually sounds something like this:

好きな食べ物は カニと お寿司と ラーメンと おそばと うどんと カレーライスと オムライスと 焼肉です!
suki na tabemono wa ___ kani to ___ osushi to ___ raamen to ___ osoba to ___ udon to ___ kareeraisu to ___ omuraisu to ___ yakiniku desu!
My favorite foods are crab, sushi, ramen, soba, udon, curry rice, omelet rice, and yakiniku!
Literally: "(As for) Liked foods, (they are)... crab and... sushi and... ramen and... soba and... udon and... curry rice and... omelet rice and... yakiniku!

That’s just a single example of native-like rhythm, and it’s not the kind of thing you’ll find in any Japanese-learning resource out there (at least not any that I’ve seen).

I know what you’re thinking: How am I supposed to memorize all this stuff, Niko, you self-effacing nerd?!

Well, you should just pick it up naturally with lots and lots of Japanese exposure. Just be sure to keep your ears open, paying attention to the flow of native speech. I’ll mention lots of other cool tactics for matching intonation throughout this and other guides.

By the way, keep in mind that when I talk about “rhythm,” this is different than “intonation” and the dreaded “Japanese pitch accent,” which we'll look at next...




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