- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 09/09/2014
- Chinese, Linguistics
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?”|
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.
Click below to read part 1 of of tones, languages and music