Tonal languages and the tone deaf

In its most recent column, USA Today‘s Wonderquest takes up the question “How do tone-deaf Chinese communicate?” The author, April Holladay, gets the most important point correct:

Tone-deaf Chinese talk just like other Chinese. Their profound musical disability makes no real difference in understanding and talking a tonal language.

She continues:

You’d think it would. Tone deaf means a person cannot hear the difference between two successive tones. The two tones are indistinguishable. In a tonal language, like Chinese, different tones give words different meanings.

The phrasing here is a little off in saying that “different tones give words different meanings.” Compare with the following sentence I created for the purpose of this example: “In English, different vowels give words different meanings: cat, cot, cut, cute, coat.” I hope this makes it easier to see the problem. Vowels don’t change the meanings. (From what?) But this is not a particularly important point.

Here’s an example of two different tones each meaning a different word from the Mandarin Chinese dialect (using diacritics to indicate the tones). See figure for the corresponding pictographs.

— pronounced with a long high level tone, meaning woman [sic]
— pronounced with a low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the high-~ tone, meaning horse

First, is not the Mandarin word for “woman.” It’s a word for “mother.” (The more common Mandarin word for “mother” is the same as it is in many, many other languages: māmā.) But let’s skip that for now.

Holladay gets a point for using “Mandarin” rather than just “Chinese,” but she slides back a notch for the common but still incorrect label of “dialect.” And the use of the word “pictograph” to describe Chinese characters is very wrong indeed, as is clear from even the limited example given in the article.

Here’s the article’s pullbox, which is labeled “Mandarin Chinese pictographs”:

? [?] Woman
? [?] Horse

(The characters in brackets are simplified forms. Both forms appear in the article just as they do here.)

These characters are unmistakably related to each other — the one on the second line comprising part of the one on the first. So, if the second one is a pictograph of a horse — which, indeed, is how that character started out — how exactly is the first one a pictograph of a woman? Or, more properly, how exactly is the first one a pictograph of a mother? (Remember that the identification of /? with “woman” is wrong.) Does a mother really look like a horse standing next to a ?? Of course not.

So if ? isn’t a pictograph, what is it? The answer is a phonetic compound, which is what the vast majority of Chinese characters are. In ?, ? is a phonetic element that hints that the character is probably pronounced sort of like . The ? portion is one of the so-called radicals. In the ? character, ? serves to hint that the meaning of the character might be related in some way with women.

This is a fairly transparent example. But the connection is not always so clear.

So, you’d think that a tone-deaf Chinese would be stuck. How can he tell the difference in speech between, say, “woman” and “horse” with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?

Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context.

This is an extremely important point — and a correct one.

For a little more on Chinese characters and pictographs, see my earlier post software designer on Chinese.

source: Tonal languages for the tone-deaf [or a horse is a hoarse of course of coarse], USA Today, October 6, 2005

8 thoughts on “Tonal languages and the tone deaf

  1. [NB the link for the USA Today article is to an unrelated site]

    In my substantial experience as a musician I think the perception of what it means to be musically able or illiterate (“tone deaf”) is so poorly defined as to rival the misconceptions about Chinese characters on which this site is based.
    In other words, her comment “Tone deaf means a person cannot hear the difference between two successive tones. The two tones are indistinguishable.” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny any more than the claims about language that you dissect. I would basically say, things are rarely that black and white. The musical tones may not be indistinguishable as much as that the person doesn’t have a label to attach to them, in order to call them something different.

    I would continue by saying that to me the tones of spoken Chinese are completely unrelated to music and musical perception. Just because the word tone is used does not mean the concepts are equal! In my experience studying Chinese, I have found many many native speakers who do not relate to the tones in the non-native approach, as variations on the fundamental phonemes, but rather perceive them as completely different sounds. Often I am greeted with blank stares when I ask for clarification on the particular tone of a word, having understood the phonetic components. They made the sound for me, why don’t I understand it? A much better analogy than horse and hoarse would be words which have the same spelling but are pronounced with different emphasis in English when they are to be understood as a verb and not a noun. I think it is a fundamental misconception to assume that the Chinese language is understood the way Westerners try to learn and understand it, by giving this overworn ma/ma example. One has only to look at the rhyming rules for Chinese, which would seem ludicrous to an English speaker, to understand that the phonology starts somewhere else. Does it seem radical to suggest that the pinyin chart is NOT how Chinese approach the sounds they make and hear?

    Finally, it seems like a glib and unsupported conclusion to say, sure the ‘tone deaf’ can understand, by context. Maybe they genuinely hear the sounds as unique syllabic utterances, unrelated to their perception of musical tones. If you play a harpsichord for a Chinese audience, they may all seem tone deaf, just as suona might confuse Western ears. Science, in other words, is usually left out of these discussions, not to mention true understanding of music. Pop writers are just to eager to draw parallels.

  2. That is shocking that somebody would write a whole article about this and not know what ? means. There is one part that you wrote that I don’t quite understand, though:

    The phrasing here is a little off in saying that “different tones give words different meanings.” Compare with the following sentence I created for the purpose of this example: “In English, different vowels give words different meanings: cat, cot, cut, cute, coat.” I hope this makes it easier to see the problem. Vowels don’t change the meanings. (From what?) But this is not a particularly important point.

    Obviously cat, cot, cut, cute and coat have different meanings. If I change the short ‘e’ in red to a long ‘a’, the word becomes ‘raid’ and the meaning changes completely. What do you mean when you say that different vowels (or tones) don’t give words different meanings? What am I missing here? Maybe we use slightly different diction (I’m from the western part of the US).

  3. I didn’t explain myself well. Or perhaps it’s just that my point is more pedantic than practical and so seems of little import. What I meant is that if someone says the word “cat”, the word is indeed “cat” and not “ct” with an “a”. The vowel is part of the word, not some sort of auxiliary feature. If someone then says “cute”, this is not the word “cat”, just said differently; it’s a different word, albeit one that has some phonemic resemblences to “cat”.

    If the vowel is different the word is different. This is not a case of one word whose meaning changes.

    (Does that make any more sense?)

    This is not to say, though, that an orthography must indicate all tones. That’s a different matter.

  4. According to Steven Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals, posession of perfect pitch is something of a disadvantate for learning both music and languages, even in the case of tonal language such as Chinese.

  5. Very interesting! I have a question though… if tone is so important in Chinese, how does music work around that? It seems like a falling note in a song could be easily mistaken for a falling tone, is there some other way they differentiate? Context? Just a thought…

  6. Pingback: Tone Deafness and Whispering Doesn’t Stop Tones | Sinosplice: Life

  7. Pingback: Pinyin news » toneless whispers and tonal languages

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