Tonal language

A Tonal language is a language that uses tone to distinguish words. Tone is a phonological trait common to many languages around the world (though rare in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific). Chinese is perhaps the most well-known of such languages.

Geography of tonality

In Europe, Norwegian, Swedish, Basque, Limburgish (a Franconian language), Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, some dialects of Slovenian and, in some cases, French and Romanian possess elements of tonality, but this is in most cases better understood as a pitch accent. Another Indo-European tonal language, spoken in the Indian subcontinent, is Punjabi.

Most languages of sub-Saharan Africa (notably excepting Swahili in the East, and Wolof and Fulani in the West) are tonal. Hausa is tonal, although it is a distant relative of the Semitic languages, which are not.

There are numerous tonal languages in East Asia, including all the Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and Burmese (but not Mongolian, Cambodian, Malay, standard Japanese or standard Korean). In Tibet, which is riven by harsh geography, the Central and Eastern dialects of Tibetan (including that of the capital Lhasa) are tonal, while the dialects of the West are not.

Some of the native languages of North and South America possess tonality, especially the Na-Dené languages of Alaska and the American Southwest (including Navajo), and the Oto-Manguean languages of Mexico. Among the Mayan languages, which are mostly non-tonal, Yucatec (with the largest number of speakers), Uspantek and one dialect of Tzotzil, have developed tones.

Patterns of tonality

Tonal patterns vary widely across languages. In English, one or more syllables are given an accent, which can consist of a loud stress, a lengthened vowel, and a high pitch, or any combination of these. In tonal languages, the pitch accent must be present, but the others are optional. For example, in Czech and Hungarian, the first syllable of each word is stressed, but any syllable may be lengthened, and pitch is not used. In French, no syllable is stressed or lengthened, but the final or penultimate syllable has higher pitch. Turkish similarly has high pitch on the last syllable, but also possesses length and possibly stress. None of these languages are considered tonal, and there is much discussion about how much prominence pitch must have in order to label a language tonal.

Many sub-Saharan languages (such as Hausa) have a scheme in which individual syllables in a word have a fixed pitch. High and low pitch are always permissible, and sometimes a middle level of pitch occurs as well. However, some are more complex. In Yoruba there are three pitches (high, low, and middle) and the meaning of a word is determined by the pitch on the vowels. For example, the word "owo" in Yoruba could mean "broom", "hand", or "respect" depending on how the vowels are pitched. Also, "you" (singular) in Yoruba is o in a middle pitch, while the word for "he, she, it" is o in a high pitch. Change of pitch is used in some African languages (such as Luo) for grammatical purposes, such as marking past tense.

Ancient Greek had a tonal pattern wherein, in isolated words, exactly one mora was high, and the others low. A short vowel formed a single mora, and therefore had only high or low tone, whereas a long vowel comprised two morae, and could therefore be low, or rising (from low to high), or falling (from high to low). Note that the scheme was more complex when words were grouped together, as they could form accentuation units with proclitic words at the start and enclitic words at the end, and such accentuation units could have multiple accents. By the start of the Middle Ages, this tonal accent system had been simplified to a stress accent system, but remained recorded in written Greek until the 1970's.

In the Japanese of Tokyo, tonal patterns are adapted to multi-syllable words. Every word must contain a single continuous chain of high pitched moras, beginning with either the first or second mora. Moras preceding and following this chain, if any, must be low. E.g., the city name Kyōto has tone KYOoto, with the pitch pattern high-low-low. The words for "chopstick", "edge" and "bridge" all have the consonant-vowel structure hashi, but the first has the pitch pattern high-low, the second low-high, while the third is also low-high but is followed by an obligatory low in the next word.

Tonal contours (rising, falling, or even more elaborate ones) are present in many languages, such as Thai, Vietnamese and the many Chinese dialects. In Standard Thai, every word has one of five associated contours: high even, middle even, low even, rising, or falling. Mandarin has four tones, similar to Thai's without the middle tone. Cantonese has at least 8 tonal contours: high even, high falling (which is becoming obsolete, and changing to high even), high rising, middle even, middle rising, low even, low falling and low rising. Two of them (high even and middle rising) are often superimposed upon words with other tone contours to indicate emotional closeness or familiarity, in a manner parallel to the diminutive suffixes of many Romance and Slavic languages.

Theories of tonogenesis

Because languages can both acquire tonality (like Hausa or Yucatec Maya) and lose it (like Korean and Ancient Greek), linguists have speculated on its origin. From comparison of the Tibetan dialects with and without tone, and of both with the spelling of Ancient Tibetan, it appears that initial voiced consonants are associated with a low pitch register, while unvoiced ones associate with high. Even though the voicing of the consonants has been lost, the pitch register remains. Also, the loss of final consonants in Central Tibetan (which are preserved in spelling and in the atonal dialects) suggests that such loss gives rise to tonal contours. In addition to Tibetan, both Chinese and Vietnamese are believed to have been atonal within the past two millennia , and to have developed their modern tonal systems in such a fashion.

More recently, a statistical analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh highlighted a correlation between the microcephaly genes MCPH1 and ASPM with the tonality of language [1].

Notational systems

Main articles: Tone (linguistics)#Notational systems and Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin
Because the transcriptions of tonal languages in the Latin alphabet were often devised by untrained Europeans, who were largely unfamiliar with the phenomenon, most official spellings of such languages today simply omit all indication of tonality. Even Pinyin, the current official Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese, is commonly printed in most publications without tone marks. This makes the Chinese words much harder to identify correctly; a similar situation would arise if photographs of birds in birdwatching handbooks were printed in black and white instead of full color.

On the other hand, Vietnamese is written with quốc ngữ, a Latin-based alphabet that denotes tones using diacritical marks above or below the base vowels; this was possibly inspired by a similar system used to write Ancient Greek. So too, Yoruba, almost alone among the tonal languages of Africa, is often written with tonal marks. The tonal marking of Navajo is especially simple, as only a single diacritic is needed to mark high, low, rising and falling tones.

However, the undermarking of tonality is just part of the inadequacy of all spelling systems. For example, most languages of the Semitic family (e.g., the Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets) are written with most of the vowels left unexpressed; this tendency is found as far back as Ancient Egyptian. And stress is not indicated in languages as different as English, Russian and Tagalog, even though stressing different syllables can indicate different words. For example in English, convict (a person who is convicted) vs. convict (the verb), present (the time) vs. present (the verb), or content (that which is contained) vs. content (happy). Sometimes the stress distinguished words have different spelling, as in dessert (after dinner treat) vs. desert (sandy, hot and dry), although most English speakers would be unaware of the nature of the actual spoken difference. Examples in other languages are muka "torment" vs. muka "flour" in Russian and aso "dog" vs. aso "smoke" in Tagalog.

Pronouncing tonality

The difficulty of pronouncing and of recognizing tonal patterns in words is greatly exaggerated. Like any other unfamiliar linguistic feature, such as aspiration, retroflexion or velarization, it can be taught and learned. Initially, tonal patterns can be sung like musical passages; then, the extreme range of pitch can be narrowed into that of ordinary speech. Since tonal languages often have long and short vowels, the analogy to teaching music, with both pitch and rhythm, is especially close.

References

1. ^ Dediu, Dan & D. Robert Ladd (2007), "Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin", PNAS Early Edition, <[1] (retrieved on June 12, 2007)

See also

Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish words. All languages use intonation to express emphasis, contrast, emotion, or other such elements, but not every language uses tone to distinguish lexical meaning.
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Phonology (Greek φωνή (phōnē), voice, sound + λόγος (lógos), word, speech, subject of discussion), is a subfield of linguistics which studies the sound system of a
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South Asia, also known as Southern Asia, is a southern geopolitical region of the Asian continent comprising territories on and in proximity to the Indian subcontinent. It is surrounded by (from west to east) Western Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, and Southeastern Asia.
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Norwegian}}} 
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Indo-European languages comprise a family of several hundred related languages and dialects [1], including most of the major languages of Europe, the northern Indian subcontinent (South Asia), the Iranian plateau (Southwest Asia), and much of Central Asia.
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Indian subcontinent is a large section of the Asian continent consisting of countries lying substantially on the Indian tectonic plate. These include countries on the continental crust— India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan, island countries
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Wolof is a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, and it is the native language of the ethnic group of the Wolof people. Like the neighboring language Fula, it belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family.
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Hausa}}} 
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Semitic languages are a family of languages spoken by more than 300 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. They constitute the northeastern subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic languages, and the only branch of this group spoken in Asia.
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Chinese or the Sinitic language(s) (汉语/漢語, Pinyin: Hànyǔ; 华语/華語, Huáyǔ; or 中文, Zhōngwén) can be considered a language or language family.
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Vietnamese (tiếng Việt, or less commonly Việt ngữ[1]), formerly known under the French colonization as Annamese (see Annam), is the national and official language of Vietnam.
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