Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

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Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Saim » Mon Jul 02, 2018 1:18 pm

So, what's this whole pitch accent thing about?

I'm a heritage speaker of Serbian from Australia, and I used to speak Serbian with a clearly English-speaking accent or at the very least a markedly foreign one. In the past several years I've managed to improve my accent to the point where I will often be able to pass as a native, however it's generally perceived as some sort of weird mixed accent or one from random peripheral regions of Serbia as far as I can tell -- one person asked me if I'm from Subotica, another said I have a southern tilt to my Serbian (in many parts of the south they don't have pitch accent or have fewer tones), and yet others have said that I sound like a Bosnian who's spent a lot of time living in Vojvodina. Part of me suspects this is because I haven't consciously learned the pitch accent system, and have simply tried to imitate the prosody of those around me and on B/C/S/M media, thus adopting an inconsistent approach to pitch accent.

In Serbo-Croatian there are four accents/tones (long-rising, long-falling, short-rising and short-falling). I can differentiate long from short easily (it helps that there's also a difference in vowel quality), but I have trouble even perceiving the difference between rising and falling accents. It's also rather difficult because the accents change in inflected forms of both nouns and verbs. Every dictionary provides the pitch for the basic form as well as often for some of the inflected forms (there are patterns for this sort of accent movement, so you can theoretically predict the rest from only a couple of forms, but no matter how much I read about it I can't figure it out). Unfortunately all of the sources that describe this are written as far as I can tell, I haven't had much looking for tutorials on YouTube or anything.

Does anyone here have any experience grappling with the B/C/S/M pitch accent system, or that of a language with a similar level of complexity (like Swedish for example)? Most foreigners don't even try to learn pitch accent but part of me is frustrated by having it almost right but not quite. :lol:
Last edited by Saim on Tue Jul 03, 2018 8:24 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby vonPeterhof » Mon Jul 02, 2018 8:02 pm

I haven't done much to learn the pitch accent when doing Norwegian or BCMS, but I did try to put in effort towards mastering the Japanese pitch accent. Messed up pitch is probably the clearest marker of non-native speech in Japanese, and yet a lot of the resources aimed at non-native learners either ignore it entirely or give only a cursory introduction (like marking the pitch of the individual words in vocabulary lists without explaining how pitch varies in inflections or what happens to it on the phrase and sentence levels). Thankfully there's plenty of resources available that do explain all the ground rules - there's some good ones in this thread.

I personally was pretty far into my advanced studies of the language when I first realized the importance of pitch, but luckily for me the language school in Osaka where I took a three month course had a separate class on correct pronunciation, mainly focusing on pitch, but also touching on rhythm and certain problematic phonemes. While I can't say that I memorized all the rules that were explained to us, I think just being made aware of e.g. the fundamental difference between accented and unaccented verbs made it a lot easier to pick up on the patterns even in passive listening. And yeah, there are dialectal differences, but if most of your exposure to Japanese is through media you generally won't need to worry about dialect interference - Kansai dialects do feature in Japanese media quite prominently, but their pitch patterns are distinctive enough so as never to be confused for standard ones.

Not sure to what extent any of this would be helpful in mastering BCMS pitch :)
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Postby Morgana » Mon Jul 02, 2018 9:56 pm

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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Axon » Tue Jul 03, 2018 4:17 am

I'm a chorusing fanatic but I know virtually nothing about pitch accent, only tone. I'm only commenting to say that Dr. Kjellin updated his Audacity paper very recently, on June 21, 2018.

That version, 1.8, can be found at this link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/dapnwrofnwx7v ... y.pdf?dl=0

He has a small Facebook group where he posts occasionally:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/best.pronunciation/
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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Denzagathist » Tue Jul 03, 2018 5:37 am

I wrote my BA thesis last year on perceptions of regional pitch accent in BCMS, and as you are probably well aware of, it's an incredibly messy situation. The strategies that I would recommend are probably going to depend greatly on what you're really aiming for: correctness/standardness, or naturalness/normalcy? Personally, when I was first learning Croatian in preparation for moving to Croatia, I was confused by the pitch accent system (and rightly so) and just decided to wait until I arrived to pick it up. Without a firm grounding in the language, phonetics, and some background in the historical development of South Slavic languages, I imagine that it would be extremely difficult to learn to speak naturally with pitch accents remotely. After spending a year living in a small town on the Croatian coast, I was able to assimilate the local pitch accent patterns into my own speech. I can perceive that my friends from Zagreb and Varaždin speak quite differently, and I've been told that I speak like someone from the Kvarner region, which is where I lived.

So, aside from the fact that the pitch accent system in BCMS is wickedly complicated and largely ignored by most learning materials altogether, the most immediate issue the learner is going to run into is that the pitch accent system of the standard language isn't used by almost anyone in practice, except for prescriptive university professors or people from the countryside of East Herzegovina, whose speech the standard language was arbitrarily based on. That is, if you speak with the "standard" pitch accents, you will sound unnatural and stilted. Depending on your background and other aspects of your speech, you could come across as either 1) pompous, 2) rural, or 3) foreign (if other aspects of your speech also sound unnatural). In the case of Croatia specifically, where most local varieties have significantly reduced the number of prosodic distinctions, using the full accentual system might cause you to be negatively perceived due to "sounding Serbian/Bosnian." In all four countries, the people who do use the full set of pitch accent distinctions in their native dialect are overwhelmingly from rural areas, and most especially from Bosnia.

On the other hand, if you speak with any of the numerous regional realizations of the pitch accents, you might sound non-standard and potentially uneducated in some contexts -- but at least you'll sound more natural and probably won't be perceived as foreign. The obvious exception would be if your overall level in the language aside from pitch accent is noticeably non-native. Another interesting thing to note is that thanks to their status as their nations' capitals, the urban dialects of Zagreb and Belgrade do command prestige in Croatia and Serbia, respectively, despite differing from the standard language significantly in terms of pitch accent (especially so in the case of Zagreb's dialect). Thus, there could be said to be two standard prosodic systems operating simultaneously within Croatia, for example: the standard pan-BCMS system, and that of the Zagreb dialect, which has actually eliminated all accentual contrasts other than stress. The good news is that it might actually be easier to pick up a local accentual system since the vast majority of regional dialects have reduced the number of pitch accents distinguished. I'm more familiar with the distinctions within Croatia, but I'm fairly certain that this is true of Serbia too. I believe that only the Posavina region of Slavonia has a more complicated prosodic inventory (with five pitch accents).

Furthermore, there have been a number of perceptual studies conducted that have shown that many native speakers are less attuned to the pitch accents of the standard language than an outsider might otherwise expect. A study done on native speakers from Croatia indicated that in many cases they could not accurately distinguish standard from non-standard pitch accents in words, and rated some non-standard realizations as more acceptable or desirable than the prescribed standard accents. In addition to that, another study showed that speakers all throughout the BCMS Sprachraum had difficulty consistently distinguishing all of the various pitch accent distinctions, most especially the distinction between short-rising and short-falling accents, but even the distinctions in rising/falling long accents were difficult for some listeners. Only trained linguists from Bosnia were able to achieve perfect scores on the test. It is interesting to note that this is also the area that you said you struggle with. I suspect that it comes down to a couple of potential reasons: 1) depending on whom you're listening to, the speaker might not actually distinguish accents in their speech that are supposed to be distinguished in the artificial standard language, and/or 2) the variety you are most used to hearing (your heritage dialect, perhaps?) might not distinguish some of the pitch accents, and thus your ear might not be trained to listen for those differences. Another possibility is that because you mentioned having listened to a variety of mixed sources, pitch accents in the same words could be realized completely differently across sources.

Before I start going into a whole lot more detail, let me just make my recommendation. You need to first decide your priority, whether that be learning the standard/"correct" pitch accents, or sounding natural, because in most cases those two options are mutually exclusive. If you want to sound standard, then go ahead and study the official rules for pitch accents (I haven't ever tried to do this myself, so I don't have any suggestions for how to go about doing so). If you want your speech to sound natural, then you need to pinpoint where precisely you'd like to sound like you're from. You mentioned that you are a heritage speaker, so the area that your family comes from would be the obvious choice. The variety spoken in Belgrade would be another good choice for you, as it is probably the most prestigious non-standard variety within Serbia. After choosing your target variety, then you could apply the methods suggested in this thread to that. But you need to be careful that what you are listening to is actually the intended variety -- formal sources like news broadcasts generally use the prescriptive standard. The key is to be consistent about which variety you are modeling your speech after.

I'm sorry for having written so much! This topic is very complicated and I just find it fascinating. I hope this has been of at least some use to you.
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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Saim » Tue Jul 03, 2018 9:36 am

Denzagathist wrote:The strategies that I would recommend are probably going to depend greatly on what you're really aiming for: correctness/standardness, or naturalness/normalcy? [...] 2) the variety you are most used to hearing (your heritage dialect, perhaps?) might not distinguish some of the pitch accents, and thus your ear might not be trained to listen for those differences.


My mum is from Novi Sad (but her parents aren't, my baka is from Belgrade and my deda was from Kruševac) so quite close to, but not identical to, the Serbian prestige dialect. I've also spent most summers since 2012 in Novi Sad (also in 2012 I lived here for ~7 months). I'd honestly prefer maintaining my current way of speaking than adopt a rather hypothetical standard (with its telèvīzija, Jugòslāvija, dèvojākā and such).

You're right that Vojvodinian-Šumadian accents do present a simplified system compared to the standard, but according to standard linguistic descriptions they still maintain all four standard Neo-Štokavian accents. All they do is reduce unstressed long syllables to short ones (dèvojākā -> dèvojaka). But maybe these descriptions are outdated.

I'm sorry for having written so much! This topic is very complicated and I just find it fascinating. I hope this has been of at least some use to you.


Not at all, it was extremely useful!

Morgana wrote:I can't say if chorusing works because I haven't done it myself to any serious extent. Maybe others have and will chime in as to what benefit they reaped. However I do feel like it's promising, so I'm going to share a ton of links.


I've been reading through these threads and I'm still confused. Isn't this just repeated shadowing?
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Postby Morgana » Wed Jul 04, 2018 2:17 am

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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Axon » Wed Jul 04, 2018 2:29 am

Morgana, you're absolutely right.

In short, you play a couple of seconds of clear, natural speech on endless repeat in your headphones. When you feel ready, you try and repeat out loud at the same time as the speaker as best you can. After about a hundred repetitions (three or four minutes of nonstop speaking) you end up getting really close to the native without much effort. The reason why has to do with your brain and vocal cords, which is explained in the document I linked above.

After doing this on a variety of sentences for roughly twenty hours, in theory you'll have a native-like accent as long as you haven't picked up any bad pronunciation habits before. In that case it could take hundreds of hours of this kind of work, as reported by some of the people on that pronunciation Facebook page.

Personally, I've only done significant chorusing for Russian and Cantonese, and nothing even approaching twenty hours. This is because you can start to see results almost immediately, after just a few chorusing sessions. Our user Kraut (linked above) is as far as I know one of the people on this forum who has devoted the most time to it. zKing has also done quite a bit.
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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Daniel N. » Mon Aug 13, 2018 9:00 pm

I don't think anyone in Serbia stresses Jugoslavija on o.

There are two issues here:

1 learning to pronounce the tones (there are only two, length has nothing to do with the tone, but traditional marks combine tone and length into one symbol). You have to follow some native speaker here

2 learning the patterns. This is a never-ending story, you simply have to remember which word uses which pattern. There are basically three major patterns. You will have to find a very good book or dictionary.

Having said that, people from e.g. Zagreb have no tones at all, and have completely different (simplified) patterns which allow stress on any syllable. The same holds for Rijeka, but stressed syllables are not pronounced exactly the same, and there are some fine differences in patterns compared to Zagreb.

You move 40 km from Zagreb to a small village, and you have not just different patters, but completely different system of tones from the standard (New Štokavian system).
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Re: Learning pitch accent? [Serbo-Croatian]

Postby Xenops » Tue Aug 14, 2018 1:53 am

I believe it was zenmonkey that provided a link where you could visually compare your voice to the recording? I tried downloading WaveSurfer, and it says "no mountable file systems".
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