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.
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.
mā — pronounced with a long high level tone, meaning woman [sic]
mǎ — pronounced with a low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the high-~ tone, meaning horse
First, mā 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”:
(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 mā/? 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 mǎ. 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