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Music and tone languages

Most people are probably familiar with the basics of tone languages, and Mandarin Chinese is the usual example. Briefly, such languages use pitch to contrast vowels (including diphthongs and triphthongs), in the same way that all languages use contrasting phonemes to contrast words. In fact the word “toneme” has been coined to describe this.

Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones plus a “neutral” tone. They are 1-high, 2-rising, 3-low falling + rise and 4-high falling. The neutral tone falls only on vowels with secondary stress, in the same sort of way that the English neutral vowel, or schwa, stands in for most other vowels when unstressed.

In a couple of classic examples (ma and tang) from Mandarin:

word character tone meaning
mā 1 – high mother
má 2 – low rising hemp
3 – low falling + rising horse
mà 4 – high falling scold
tāng 1 – high soup
táng 2 – low rising sugar
tǎng 3 – low falling + rising if
tàng 4 – high falling scald

(You may not be able to see all the tone marks or the Chinese characters. In particular tone 3 is an inverted circumflex accent, like a v over the vowel).

You may notice, by the way, that three of the four “ma” words contain the character for horse (the third one). This serves as a phonetic marker, reminding the reader that these words sound alike. Chinese has only about 400 different syllables (compared with about 8000 in English), so the tones increase the number of available syllables by a factor of four, though some syllables are not used with all tones.

People learning tone languages are typically terrified of tones, thinking they are impossible to learn, hear and produce. Actually they’re not too bad, and getting used to them is no worse than learning new features of any language. Of course it’s common to remember the form of a word but to be unsure of its tone, but also remarkably common to remember the tone of a word but forget its form!

Some common misconceptions:

Singing in Chinese must be impossible because you use important phonetic information contained in the tones. Partly TRUE; sung Chinese has to rely on other contextual information to disambiguate.

Chinese has no sentence intonation, because pitch information is used on individual morphemes. FALSE. Chinese has sentence intonation just like other languages, and this means that the individual tones are merely relative in pitch.

People who are tone-deaf have difficulty understand tone languages. FALSE for several reasons. Firstly, there really is no such thing as a tone-deaf person. We all hear and produce intonation in our own languages, and tone is no different. In any case, natural selection tends to exclude from languages any feature which is not available to 100% (or vanishingly close) of speakers.

Speakers of tone languages are more likely to have perfect pitch. FALSE. Tone languages no more use absolute pitch than any other language does. The pitch variations are relative, just like in sentence intonation.

English does not use tones. FALSE. It’s easy to find use of tones in all languages, when we use intonation of a single word. For example try the word “No” as a single word answer to a question. You can say it with different meanings in all four of the Chinese tones and quite a few more besides. Some examples:

No… steady high tone bored, “oh do stop asking”
No middle, falling the most neutral response
No! high, falling sharply surpise, “that’s amazing!”
No low falling, then rising patronising. “you really don’t get it, do you?”
No? rising questioning

etc… Of course these don’t change the primary meaning of the word, only the connotations or secondary meaning, and that’s how it differs from tone languages. And my English is standard Southern English (RP). Speakers of other varieties of English may not agree with my descriptions.

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