Speaking in Tones

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March 18, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

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.

Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is a typical example. Take the word ma. If you say it the way an English-speaker would say it, just reading it sitting by itself on a page, then it means “scold.” Say ma as if you were looking for your mother—ma?—and it means “rough.” If you were just whining at her—“ma-a-a?!?”—with your voice swooping down a bit and then back up even higher, that would mean, believe it or not, “horse.” And if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as ma instead of “oh” for some reason, that would actually mean mother. That’s the way almost every syllable works in Chinese.

As tone languages go, Mandarin is by no means the most complicated. The Hmong language, spoken in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, can have seven or even eight tones. It’s dazzling, really. If you say paw like a statement, it means “female.” Say it like a question and it means “to throw.” Say it up high in an impatient way and you’re saying “ball.” Say it down low as if you ran into someone in a basement and didn’t want anyone upstairs to know you were down there, and it means “thorn.” Say it in a tone between the impatient high and the down-low and it means “pancreas.” If you say paw in a creaky way—kind of like the way one might imitate an elderly person’s voice—then it means “to see,” while if you say it in a breathy, amazed way as if you were seeing a horsey in the clouds, then it means “paternal grandmother.” (For what it’s worth, maternal grandmother is tai, said on the “basement” tone.)

Tone languages are spoken all over the world, but they tend to cluster in three places: East and Southeast Asia; sub-Saharan Africa; and among the indigenous communities of Mexico. Why there and not elsewhere? One thing these regions might have in common is heat, though it’s hard to imagine how that would make people speak more melodically. Yet environment may not be entirely unrelated to the phenomenon—according to one hypothesis, tone languages are less likely to develop in dry environments because dry air deprives the vocal cords of the suppleness required to produce subtle differences in tone.

The jury is still out on that one, but even if it turns out to be true, it only gets us so far. The theory proposes that where the climate isn’t dry, there’s no predicting whether a language will take on tones or not. As such, it’s easy to suppose—and fun to imagine—that people decide to “sing” language out of some kind of cultural impulse. The reality is less groovy, but just as interesting.

It’s ultimately a matter of one thing leading to another. Take the words “pay” and “bay.” It looks like the only difference between them is that they start with different letters, but there’s more to it up close. English-speakers tend to say the ay sound on a slightly lower pitch after a b than after a p, because of the different mechanics involved in saying those consonants. That is, one tends to say “pay” a little higher than one says “bay.” In daily life that’s so subtle as to be barely noticeable: What stands out is the good old difference between p and b. But p and b are very similar sounds, and sounds that are similar have a way of melting together—a Cockney English-speaker can say “bref” for breath and “fing” for thing because the f and th sounds are made close together at the front of the mouth. Suppose as time went by English-speakers started pronouncing b as p so that there was no more b sound at all?

Imagine: “Brother” is “prother,” “bat” is “pat,” “big” is “pig.” Things like that happen in languages all the time, and if it happened to English, then instead of “pay” and “bay” there would just be “pay” and “pay”—except there would still be that difference in the tone. “Pay” with a neutral tone would mean “pay,” while “pay” with a low tone would mean “bay.” The tone alone would convey the difference in meaning. This is exactly how a tone language happens, and in some places you can even see the steps in the process. For example, there is a language called Khmu spoken in parts of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. In one dialect of Khmu, pok means “bite” and bok means “to cut down a tree.” In another dialect, though, b has become p, and all that’s left behind is the difference in the tone, as if the Cheshire Cat had left behind his smile. Thus in that dialect, pok on a high tone means “bite,” while pok on a low tone means “to cut down a tree.”

Adapted from theatlantic.

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This was an article on Linguistics.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
Contact Information

33 Comments


  1. Tone=important in every culture

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  2. Depending on the tone, a person can interpret the meaning behind the word an individual is trying to convey.

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  3. Tone language = convey different meanings + widely used + cultural + related to environmental factors

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  4. Main Idea: To demonstrate the importance of tone in different languages and hypothesize how they might have developed.

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  5. tonal lang= same word is different meaning bc of pitch and tone

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  6. pitch = important, tone language =/= dry environments

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  7. Some languages –> pitch = important

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  8. MIP: most lang require tone to disting between similar words
    tone= +

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  9. MIP: tone = important in language + affected by heat

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  10. speech = tonal language CW, tone = diff in meaning; author = neutral

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  11. MI: Tone = Diff importances in diff languages

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  12. Explanations for speaking in tones (over time changing pronunciation leads to different tones).

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  13. diff tones in lang –> diff meaning

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  14. Different tones of the same words can depict different meaning in various languages.

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  15. Some languages Pitch=important=TL Ex. Mad Chinese

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  16. Tone languages = tone important + many people speak + related to climate. Origin = similar sounds melted together.

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  17. MIP: Monotone = understandable; pitch = important + called TL; TL = popular in 3 places
    Tone; Neutral

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  18. Unlike english, tone/pitch important in many languages (maybe correlated to dry climates).

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  19. MIP: Many languages = tone important. Theory: tone develops over time (ex. Khmu)

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  20. tonal language = creates meaning + popular in several parts of world

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  21. TL: pitch=imp. + possible enviro influence + similar sounds blend —> TL

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  22. 1) Pitch changes meaning in tonal language
    2) environment determines presence of tonal language

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  23. Environment affects tone in language. Tonal language = often in hot countries, but English also has tones (subtle): high vs low pitch with different consonants -> different meanings

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  24. tonal differences, even subtle, can indicate big differences in language.
    While cultures in hot climates are consciously aware of this manipulation, cultures who are not (like America) still use tonality.

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  25. The author is explaining how tone languages develop. These languages tend to cluster in humid regions, and a theory says that dry environments deprives the vocal cords of being able to produce slightly different tones. However, even in a humid environment, there is no predicting whether a language will take on the slight tone differences, so it’s just a matter of one thing leading to another.

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  26. Tones are found in all languages by different methods

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  27. MIP: English doesn’t rely on tone as much + tonal lang. develop through drift over time; tone = neutral

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  28. Tone plays an important role in many languages. A word can have a different meaning based on the tone used to pronounce the word. Warmer climates tend to have languages with more tones.

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  29. MIP: tonal language=differentiate words. Eng could be tonal.

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  30. This passage disccusses the mechanics of tonal languages, by explaining how nobody speaks in monotone. Although English has different vowels and constonants in order to distinguish words, the tone is still evident between words when payed attention to very closely.
    The passage ultimately mentions how this is happening everyday in more than 1.5 billion people worldwride when they use tonal languages. The passage also briefly proposes some theories on why others use tonal languages.

    Reply

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