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Tone, languages and music part 1

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:
1 – highmother
2 – low risinghemp
3 – low falling + risinghorse
4 – high fallingscold
tāng1 – highsoup
táng2 – low risingsugar
tǎng3 – low falling + risingif
tàng4 – high fallingscald

(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!

Read some of the common misconceptions in tones, languages and music part 2


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