Sing like you mean it! – the Linguistics of Tonal Languages


It turns out that in some languages out there,
people sing when they speak! So how does that work? When you think of the sounds that you put
together to make a word, vowels and consonants come to mind. And that’s good. Usually.
But to build words in tonal languages like Hausa or Mandarin, you need another set of
musical pieces called tones to make meaning. Yes, these languages pay attention to higher
and lower notes like a singer or a musician. They don’t do this by requiring their speakers
to have perfect pitch and hit the same notes as everyone else every time. Not everyone
who speaks your language will be a mezzo-soprano after all. So, if it’s not about the specific
notes, how do tonal languages use so many tones? They pay attention to changes in pitch.
A syllable sung higher (háá) can mean something different than that same syllable sung lower
(hàà). Linguistically, we would count those as two different tones. Whether you’re high, or low, or just right
in the middle, you’re contrasting steady notes. These different pitches are called
register tones. In the Bantu languages of Africa and Athabaskan languages like Navajo,
the two basic register tones are a high tone and a low tone. Changes in pitch can get more dynamic, rising,
falling, bouncing or staying level like they do in Mandarin or Vietnamese. These tones
are more about the shape of the tone, not simply whether the note is higher or lower,
so they’re called contour tones. In Mandarin, a syllable can be pronounced in four different
contour tones. In Thai, there are five contour tones. Think you’ve mastered register versus contour
tones? Well then, combine them! Mandarin may have four contour tones, but look to the south
to see how Cantonese distinguishes a low rising tone from a medium rising tone. Oh, and it
also has a high level tone, which is different from a medium level tone and a low level tone.
Add in the low falling tone, and you’ve got six ways to sing a Cantonese syllable! Notice that both register and contour tones
are “sung” on vowels. Consonants have your tongue blocking, smacking or pushing
the airflow around, unlike the smooth, vibrating air characteristic of vowels, which makes them the perfect
environment for singsongy tones. Tones are an extra feature that tonal languages
use to build words – rising, level and falling are as distinct as /p/, /t/ and /k/ – so speaking
a word in a the wrong tone in one of these languages can sound as bad as putting a /k/
where it doesn’t belong. This makes tonality a notoriously difficult feature to pick up
for people coming from a non-tonal language like English. (Much sympathy my friend!) So keep your ears alert and practice, practice, practice. Thanks again for learning with me and subscribe for language!

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