Posts Tagged ‘mandarin’

Not sure who put me on to this story — maybe Asakiyume, who has an interest in different cultures. It’s about languages in which a slight change in tone can change the meaning of a word.

John McWhorter writes at the Atlantic, “People don’t generally speak in a monotone. Even someone who couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle on it uses a different melody to ask a question than to make a statement, and in a sentence like ‘It was the first time I had even been there,’ says ‘been’ on a higher pitch than the rest of the words.

“Still, if someone speaks in a monotone in English, other English-speakers can easily understand. But in many languages, pitch is as important as consonants and vowels for distinguishing one word from another. In English, ‘pay’ and ‘bay’ are different because they have different starting sounds. But imagine if ‘pay’ said on a high pitch meant ‘to give money,’ while ‘pay’ said on a low pitch meant ‘a broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inward.’

“That’s what it feels like to speak what linguists call a tonal language. At least a billion and a half people worldwide do it their entire lives and think nothing of it. …

“There are certain advantages to speaking tone languages. Speakers of some African languages can communicate across long distances playing the tones on drums, and Mazatec-speakers in Mexico use whistling for the same purpose.

“You know those people who can hear a stray note and instantly identify its pitch, for instance recognizing that a certain car horn is an A flat? They have ‘absolute pitch,’ and there is evidence that speakers of tone languages are more likely to have it. In one experiment, for instance, Mandarin-speaking musicians were better at identifying musical pitches than English-speaking ones. The same has been found for speakers of Cantonese—which has six or even nine tones, depending on how you count—relative to English- and French-speakers.” More here.

I used to be quite good at Mom Tonal Language. A change in tone pronouncing a kid’s name can convey anger or amusement or affection. I don’t use the subtleties much now that I’m a grandmother. It’s mostly the affection tone.

Photo: China Stringer Network/Reuters

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