Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Chinese is a tonal language - and therefore...

I don't think it is a good idea to assume anything about people's knowledge of language, so let me explain what 'tonal language' means and then go into how this matters when you are an English speaker learning Chinese (or a Chinese speaker learning English)

I don't think we have tonal languages in Europe at all, but they are fairly common in Asia (and I'd say the most important tonal language is Chinese). The basic difference is that in English the meaning of a word usually stays the same no matter whether you say it with a flat, level tone or with a rising question-like tone or with a falling, 'Honest Yorkshireman' sort of tone. Let's take the word 'ma' which means the same thing as 'mum' or mom' in some northern English dialects and in Irish English. Now you could say:
  • "Was that woman your ma?" (where the word would go up in tone because it's a question)
  • "My ma had a few words with her" (in which case the word would be fairly level in tone)
  • "That wasn't my da, that was my ma!" (in which case the tone would be falling because you're contrasting it)
In each of those sentences the meaning of the word 'ma' is quite stable. It means the same thing whatever way you pronounce it. But in a tonal language that difference of rising tone, flat tone, falling tone actually makes it a different word.

Now it happens that 'ma' is also a word in Chinese (did you see what I did there?) so let me give you an example:
  • If you say 'ma' with a level, flat fairly high-pitched tone in Chinese it means (surprise, surprise) 'mother'
  • If you say 'ma' with a rising tone, like a question, it can mean 'hemp' or it can be an adjective meaning 'rough, coarse'
  • If you say it with a tone that goes down and then comes back up (it sounds a little like someone being sarcastic) then it means 'horse'
You will at least be happy to know that each of the three different words above have different Chinese characters (they are, respectively, 妈, 麻 and 马). The 'Mandarin' Chinese that you will most likely be taught is basically a four-tone language (the tones of any character can be: first tone (level and fairly high pitched), second tone (rising), third tone (falling then rising), fourth tone (falling). There are also some characters that have no tone or a 'neutral' tone and these are sometimes referred to as 'fifth tone'.

So what are the practical implications of this if you are learning Chinese?

  • You have to make sure that you listen hard to your teacher and pay real attention to how they pronounce a new word. English speakers are only accustomed to listening to a string of sounds in a new word, not to the actual 'tune' of those sounds. It is very good to have a parrot-like faculty as a mimic.
  • You will live in fear - when visiting China - of making some horrible faux pas because you got the tones wrong. For example, at the mildest end of the scale, the word for 'buy' is 'mai' and the word for 'sell' is also 'mai', but with a different tone. The TV sitcom phrase 'hilarious consequences' is always at the front of your mind (PS, there isn't really much risk of faux pas but you will fear them nevertheless)
  • You will realise why old English-speaking comedians had that strange sing-song voice that they used when pretending to be Chinese. It is actually based on a correct observation of what Chinese sounds like. It goes up and down because it wouldn't make sense without the up-and-down. In fact, a lot of  English speakers' contact with China over the last two centuries has been with speakers of Cantonese (which is the main Chinese 'dialect' of South China and Hong Kong). And Cantonese has seven tones, not four!
Now can I just emphasize that none of the above is meant to put you off learning Chinese - far from it. I'd recommend Chinese learning to anyone, because it is great fun and more and more useful every year. It is just a good idea to go in with your eyes open and to go in fully-prepared for a language which is logical and ancient and learnable but just not like English.

However, I should point out that we do in fact have a couple of islets of tonal meaning in English too. Think of the word 'really' and of its various meanings. In the first exchange below it means something like 'absolutely!' and it is said with a level or falling tone. In the second sentence it means 'Is that the case?' and is said with a rising tone. The tone backs up the meaning.

A:'You must be tired after that drive.'
B:'Yeah, really.'

A: 'He said that years ago he lived in the same street as you.'
B: 'Really?'

1 comment:

  1. Great post Patrick. Here are couple of similar posts, just a different approach