Wednesday 22 June 2011

Norwegian and Swedish pitch accent

Yesterday’s discussion of classical Greek led me to thinking about the somewhat parallel cases of Swedish and Norwegian. They too have two kinds of pitch accent on the stressed syllable of words of more than one syllable. The two pitch accents are lexically distinct.

One is the ‘simple’ or ‘acute’ tone, known also as tone 1 or toneme 1. The other is the ‘compound’ or ‘grave’ tone, ton(em)e 2. The classical minimal pair for Swedish is anden ˈandən ‘the duck’ (from and ‘duck’) vs. anden ˇandən ‘the spirit’ (from ande ‘spirit’). The classical minimal pair for Norwegian is bønder ˈbœnːər ‘farmers, peasants’ vs. bønner ˇbœnːər ‘beans’. (By “classical” I mean the one I read about and was told about when I first studied general phonetics and subsequently elicited from informants whenever we dealt in class with the language concerned.)

Description of the difference between the two is complicated by two factors: (i) dialectal differences, and (ii) the interplay with intonation (sentence accent). Generally speaking, the compound tone has a more complex pitch realization than the simple one does.

If you ask the average native speaker to demonstrate the difference, you will get a non-final intonation pattern for the first, a final intonation pattern for the second. This usually means that the pitch accent difference is more or less swamped by the intonation difference. (Similarly, if you ask a NS of English to demonstrate the “difference” between, say, eaten and Eton — there isn’t one — you will probably get a rising tone on the first and a falling tone on the second. You might naïvely conclude that English has a pitch accent contrast in such lexical pairs.) To elicit the pitch accent difference without this intonation difference your informant has to have the understanding and self-discipline to use the same intonation pattern for both members of the putative minimal pair. (Teachers of EFL, too, and indeed of all foreign languages need this skill.)

You will find a good example of this problem if you listen to the sound recording provided with the Wikipedia article about Swedish phonology.

With statement intonation, the Swedish compound tone “generally consists of a high falling tone on the stressed syllable and another high falling tone on a following unstressed syllable”. The corresponding Norwegian tone “consists of a high-falling pitch”, as opposed to a “low or low-falling pitch” for the simple tone. (Both quotations are from Daniel Jones.)

Not only is the pitch accent difference often hard to describe succinctly, its notation is controversial. Although it is pretty standard to write the simple tone with a simple stress mark, the IPA has no firm guidance on how to notate the compound tone.

In the 1949 edition of the IPA Principles, and in his book The Phoneme: its Nature and Use, Daniel Jones wrote the compound tone as I have done above, namely by placing [ˇ] where otherwise there would have been an ordinary stress mark [ˈ]. Furthermore, in the case of Swedish, the Principles booklet writes a grave accent [ˋ] before the syllable where the second (unstressed) falling tone is located, in cases where two or more syllables follow the stress. So nordanvinden ‘the north wind’, where the stress is on the initial syllable, is transcribed ˇnuːɖanˋvindən.

The IPA’s 1989 Kiel Convention changed the meaning of the symbol [ˋ] from ‘falling tone’ to ‘low tone’. Nevertheless, the 1999 IPA Handbook still makes use of this grave accent to denote the Swedish compound tone. Now, however, the mark goes over the vowel of the stressed syllable, with the location of the second fall shown by a secondary-stress mark, thus ˈnùɖanˌvɪndən. How (if at all) this squares with the revised meaning of the grave accent is not discussed.

Wikipedia writes the Norwegian pitch accents as à and â respectively. For Swedish it starts off with a very complex notation, but in the transcriptions of the North Wind and the Sun passage appears simply to ignore the distinction (ˈnuːɖaɱvɪnˌdən).


  1. Could we say then that the stress pattern of "nordanvinden" is similar to that of English "supermarket"?

  2. Does it relate these to the Danish stød?

  3. In Norway we use superscript 1 for toneme 1 and a superscript 2 for toneme two, freeing them from the shape of the contour itself. After all in the west of the country the actual pitch contours are the oppsite of the east...

  4. How do Allison Wetterlin and Gjert Kristoffersen notate the accents?

  5. As Taliesin points out, it doesn't really make sense to talk of "Norwegian" tone accents (phonetically; as long as you abstract it to "accent 1" and "accent 2" the dialects become much more similar. I understand that the West Franconian situation is similar in this respect). Broadly, there is a division between high-tone dialects (mainly in the west and north) and low-tone dialects (in the east), depending on the pitch on the stressed syllable itself. (As a fairly confident non-native speaker living in the north, I occasionally find low-tone speakers - which are everywhere in the media - completely unintelligible behind the drastically different pitch movements.)

    What's worse, in some dialects in the centre of the country (Trøndelag and Nordmøre) and parts of the north (roughly the Bodø area, Lofoten and parts of Vesterålen) you have dialects which distinguish between "accent 1" and "accent 2" on monosyllables, sometimes with really elaborate melodies (not just a matter of a high or low tone, as far as I remember).

    A distinct advantage of this situation for me was that I had little problem with explaining pitch and tone to first-semester students when teaching intro linguistics; they were very well attuned to hearing it.

  6. According to Wikipedia, some accents "of Norwegian have lost the tonal accent opposition". Does anyone here know if this is true?

  7. @Michael Everson: If I remember correctly, the "accent 1" and "accent 2" that Pavel talks about is related to the Danish stød in terms of which words are distinguished, but in Danish this is not a pitch accent distinction at all. The Danish stød is conventionally indicated as a glottal stop in transcriptions, although usually it is realized as creaky phonation of the vowel. This also means that in Danish you have the distinction between "accent 1" and "accent 2" in monosyllables.

    I think the two-way pitch accent distinction was common at least to continental Scandinavian languages, and the Danish stød developed from this historically.

    @yuriive: I don't know about Norwegian dialects, but in Swedish spoken in Finland (which I'm hearing a fair bit as I'm staying in Helsinki for a few days at the moment) I think the tonal accent opposition is lost.

  8. @Beatrice Portinari: 'Could we say then that the stress pattern of "nordanvinden" is similar to that of English "supermarket"?'

    The answer is yes and no. Both are compounds, both have the primary stress on the first component, and both just happen to have the primary accent on the first syllable. But as John wrote, this is about the Scandinavian word accents, especially in Swedish and Norwegian. With few exceptions, all compounds in Swedish require accent 2, the exceptions require accent 1. You don't have to make that kind of decision about "supermarket" in English.

    John gave a Swedish minimal pair example: and+en (accent 1, duck) and ande+n, (accent 2, spirit or ghost). This is also a good example of how difficult it is to compose plausible contrasting sentences without resorting to "did you say duck or ghost? I said duck/ghost". Yet these are both nouns, which are theoretically commutable. Most minimal pairs for word accent in Swedish cross word class boundaries, for example buren (accent 1, noun) and buren (accent 2, gerund), that would not normally contrast. In fact, whether a word requires accent 1 or accent 2 can almost always be predicted from factors like stress position, morphological structure and word class. So it's not surprising that speakers of Finland Swedish manage perfectly well after losing this opposition.

    "Nordanvinden" in Finland Swedish would then be comparable to "supermarket" in English, without any need to make a choice of word accent.

  9. Thanks Sidney. So, if I wanted to learn a Scandinavian language, could I ignore these tone "nuances" without making my speech too abominable?

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  11. @Beatrice Portinari: "So, if I wanted to learn a Scandinavian language, could I ignore these tone "nuances" without making my speech too abominable?:

    Tricky question Beatrice, don't know if that's been researched. There should be no difficulty over comprehension. But mixing regional attributes might be confusing. The word accents are usually taught for mainland varieties of Swedish.

  12. @beatrice: yes, everyone would understand you. it might just sound a bit comical. in norwegian, obviously people would understand from context whether you mean "farmers" or "beans", to ise the most famous example, but obviously people might snigger a bit if you end up saying that you had farmers for dinner. but you will be perfectly intelligible still.

    pitch accent is one of the easiest ways to single out the non-native speakers, no matter how perfect their command of the language might be otherwise. even people who were born and have grown up in norway might have difficulties with it if they have another mother tongue.


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