toneless whispers and tonal languages

John at Sinosplice discusses how speakers of Sinitic languages, which are tonal, can understand whispered speech, which is not tonal.

It turns out that when people whisper a tonal language such as Chinese, they naturally compensate for the lack of tones. How? According to one study:

  1. the laryngeal sphincter mechanism is found to be a principal contributing physiological maneuver in the production of whisper, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal component of the laryngeal source;
  2. two special behavioral maneuvers are also used in whisper: male speakers tend to lengthen vocalic duration and female speakers tend to exaggerate the amplitude contours of Tone 3 and Tone 4;
  3. these two special behavioral maneuvers and two temporal envelope parameters contribute to tone recognition in whisper, but the phonetic context is shown to be a distraction;
  4. the environments of the target tones cause perceptual differneces, and the ranking of these environments in order of increasing degree of difficulty is: isolation, sentence-final, sentence-medial and sentence-final;
  5. the ranking of the four tones in isolation, in order of increasing degree of perceptual difficulty is: Tone 3, Tone 4, Tone 1 and Tone 2.

further reading:

One thought on “toneless whispers and tonal languages

  1. John at Sinosplice discusses how speakers of Sinitic languages, which are tonal, can understand whispered speech, which is not tonal.

    Whispered speech is tonal. Anyone can confirm simply by recording it and observing the pitch contours via a spectral view (supported by many audio software packages). See the comments on John’s article.

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