24 Jun 2011

The imaginary tonal language

Having read John Well's Phonetic Blog on Norwegian and Swedish pitch accent the other day, I see still that not everyone has the same ideas on how to convey a tonal language in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). I suspect many haven't meditated on what they mean exactly when they describe a language as a "tonal language" or "stressed language". Being a native speaker of English, growing up with a Swedish-speaking grandmother, having learned French in school, and studying Mandarin in my adult years, my linguistic adventurism has driven me to a cheeky conclusion about this whole issue: There's no such thing as a tonal language at all.

Now, I realize that everyone can see that French leaves both native and non-native speakers the impression of a musical language that differs perceptibly from the stress accent that impregnates the sounds of English. And if anything else, Mandarin with four distinct tones may appear to logically conflict with my radical stance. Yet, my faith in the existence of a distinction began to erode when I'd speak with several native Chinese speakers who, in separate occasions, had informed me that Mandarin syllables are not to be pronounced with equal weight, a habit I picked up from French. Words like māma 'mother' (with "high level" tone) and bàba 'father' (with "high falling" tone) are easy examples of this uneven weight. The first syllable of each of these words, for all intents and purposes, may be described as... accented!

Imagine it: A tone-deaf world

Now, let's think about this for a moment. Mandarin has four tones and demonstrates an accent pattern overlaid on top of that. Accent and tone together?? Yes!! When I realized that tone and accent could co-exist, I found myself free-floating through an exciting, new linguistic landscape that I'd never noticed before. A sea of novel possibilities and combinations, beyond a simplistic contrast of tonal and non-tonal, beyond the us versus them. A world where either every language on our planet is a "tonal language" or none at all. All tongues become more familiar, less alien.

Taking from my lessons in Mandarin, I began to examine my English differently. No longer believing in the common lie that it was a non-tonal language, I started to see that English had both accent and tone too. Its one and only default tone could be described as a falling tone, equivalent to the "fourth tone" of Mandarin. I could now perceive in a word like happy that both of its syllables inherently contained a falling tone, but I also came to notice that the so-called "stress accent" (as well as the overall phrasal intonation) habitually distorts this monotonal equality by causing us to pronounce each syllable with unequal weight. In fact, I began to realize that the only reason why any language is said to have "stress accent" as opposed to "tonal accent" depends on what the default tone happens to be in the given language. So if we can describe English alternatively as a one-tone language with default "falling tone" (ie. a "stress language"), then we might similarly describe French as a one-tone language with default "level tone" (ie. a "tonal language"). To complicate further, I've noticed some varieties of French here in Manitoba and elsewhere in Quebec using a falling tone like in English (ie. some French dialects seem to employ "stress" as in English). I find it intuitive to perceive these dialect differences as a simple mutation of the default tone from "level" to "falling", a change identical to that having occurred in polytonal Cantonese, in fact. The imaginary barrier between languages of tone and those of stress begin to evaporate.

Tackling Swedish tone

Returning to John Well's examination of Swedish tone, he mentions a commonly cited minimal pair in Swedish that I'm familiar with. He represents the pair with special tonal marking as follows: /ˈandən/ 'the duck' versus /ˇandən/ 'the spirit'. He then goes on to write:
"Not only is the pitch accent difference often hard to describe succinctly, its notation is controversial. Although it is pretty standard to write the simple tone with a simple stress mark, the IPA has no firm guidance on how to notate the compound tone."
But as per my observations above, it may be misleading to represent this ultimately imaginary "compound tone" in IPA. Instead, there is, as usual, both accent on the one hand and tone on the other in Swedish. Since Swedish has a default "high" tone ("falling") with a second "low" tone in stressed syllables, it seems to me that representing the pair simply as /ˈàndən/ 'the duck' versus /ˈándən/ 'the spirit' is enough for most occasions. If speaking about many dialects at once with differing tonal patterns, one may want to codify a common set of tones with superscript numbers. One may further opt for more detail by marking every syllable with its inherent tone, but only if the need arises. Finally, I find alternative tonal notations like /ˈan˥˧dɛn˩/ far too unreadable and unaesthetic to encourage.


  1. Many Niger-Congo languages (the Kru family, frex) have 3 or more levels where contours between different levels are contrastive both lexically and grammatically.

    In Krahn (1 is high, 4 is low):

    /na1/ "grandmother"
    /na2/ "drink"
    /na3/ "walk"
    /na4/ "walk"+PAST

    /na1na2/ "grandmother drinks"
    /na1na3/ "grandmother walks"
    /na1na4/ "grandmother walked"

  2. Stress in English can be realized at the surface level in several ways, such as higher tone, lower tone, or increase in loudness. I can even repeat the same word in the same sentence and realize its stress a different way each time.

    I don't speak Mandarin, but I believe that in it and other tonal languages there is only one possible tonal realization for each word. That would seem to provide the difference between a tonal language like Mandarin and a stress language like English.

  3. vp: "I don't speak Mandarin, but I believe that in it and other tonal languages there is only one possible tonal realization for each word. That would seem to provide the difference between a tonal language like Mandarin and a stress language like English."

    We certainly can't pronounce a falling-tone word with rising tone in Mandarin because they're contrastive but there's still some freedom in the language as there is in English. They aren't that different. Read this pdf, Mechanisms of Question Intonation in Mandarin, and it'll open your mind. Mandarin has intonation and stress and everything. Just like English. It's just that because of the presence of tones, intonation patterns can be more complex and restricted.

    There's certainly more than one way to say the same tone in Mandarin, depending on how you exaggerate the contour of a tone, how high you start the tone, how long you pronounce the syllable, etc.

  4. kulibali, I don't know anything about this language in particular but, based on your description, my instinct suspects that phonation type might also be playing a role in complicated contrasts like that. Is the low tone simultaneously creaky? I find this is the case in Mandarin with tone 3 (aka "low falling-rising").

  5. This has to be the most useful post on this blog. I've been criticized for speaking in a monotone. Many of my fellow autistics do the same. When I put on the radio, one announcer in particular inflects his pitch extensively. But, I didn't know what he was really doing. When you realize that the default tone in English is falling, it becomes perfectly clear. English tone is subphonemic and has occasional rising patterns as in asking questions. Since I'm not attuned to subphonemic patterns, I miss them completely. If only I were from Yorkshire with its pitch accent. ;-)

  6. According to Charles Hockett, Mandarin has two intersecting accent systems, a tonal system with four tones (plus the neutral tone on for example particles)and a stress system with strong and weak stress, whereas Cantonese has only the tonal system but even stress like French.

  7. Hmm, I haven't thought consciously on stress and syllable timing in *Cantonese* yet but when you mention it, it sounds about right.

  8. I have taught English to Germans, who have problems differentiating between word pairs like "bad" and "bat", that only differ in the voicing of the final consonant . I tell them that "bat" has a high short tone and "bad" has a low long tone. On the same topic, "peep" is much higher and shorter than "rug".

    I think modern Chinese tones reflect the loss of initial voicing and final fricatives, among other things.