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Is English a Tonal Language?


Many of you have probably heard of the phenomenon
of “tonal languages,” languages where you need to say things with just the right
tone, otherwise you’ll wind up saying something completely different. The most famous tonal language is Chinese,
but this category also includes plenty of other languages, especially in southeast asia
and Africa. In these languages controlling the pitch of
your voice while your saying something is just as important as getting the consonants
and vowels right. For instance in Chinese, ma means horse while
ma means mother. Compare that to English, where “horse”
“horse” “horse” “horse,” all of these just mean “horse.” So there you go. If a language uses pitch it’s tonal, if
it doesn’t then it’s not. Super simple. Until you start to think about it, for even,
like, a couple of minutes, at which point everything breaks. Because here’s the thing: tone might not
change the meaning of this particular word, but we do use tone to communicate meaning. In fact, I can think of at least three different
ways to communicate different things in English using tone. Firstly, you can use pitch to emphasize certain
words. “HE didn’t steal the money,” “he didn’t
STEAL the money,” and “he didn’t steal the MONEY” these three sentences communicate
completely different ideas, and the only difference between them is the tone I said them in. Secondly, you can use tone to signify questions. Compare “You stole the book?” to “You
stole the book.” The first might not technically be a question,
but at the very least it does make it sound like I’m expecting an answer, whereas the
second doesn’t. Lastly, it seems like differences in tone
is the main way we figure out which syllable the stress of a word falls on, and we use
stress to distinguish between different words. Permit is a noun, while permit is a verb,
and you can actually experimentally show that the main way we tell the difference is by
looking at which syllable has the higher pitch. Situations like this are rare in English,
but there are more, like incline vs incline or intern vs intern. If you’re anything like me, you might easily
look at all this and get the impression that English is actually a tonal language. Or at least that this whole thing is a lot
more complicated than people generally let on. Well, I’m hear to tell you that it’s the
second one, but people don’t usually go into the details because it gets really confusing
and difficult to talk about really quickly. So, on that note, let’s dive in! Buckle up everyone because we’re about to
get technical. Let’s start by defining some terms, because
I’ve been using the word “tone” kind of sloppily this whole video. On a piano, which key you press determines
the pitch of the sound, while how hard you push it controls the volume. Pitch is basically the frequency of the sound
wave, while volume is the amplitude. Now, you might notice you can play a note
on a piano and then play the same note at the same volume on a violin, but they’ll
still sound different. This is because of timbre, which for are purposes
is basically the texture of the sound. Pause the screen now if you want to get into
the physics of it, but for the rest of you we can just move on. Now, almost all of the time in language it’s
the timbre of the sound that’s communicating information, which is why you can take an
audio recording and raise the pitch or lower the pitch or make it louder or quieter and
most of the time it’ll mean exactly the same thing as before. But as we noted earlier with these three things,
pitch also sometimes communicates information. So, if your definition of a tonal language
is just “a language that incorporates pitch somehow,” then, yes, English would be a
tonal language, along with probably every language ever. But usually when linguists say that a language
is tonal, they mean that it uses pitch to communicate lexical information. All that means is that pitch is used to distinguish
one word from another. “Pink and FLUFFY” might mean something
different from “PINK and fluffy?”, but those differences are post-lexical: above
the level of the word. The pitch changes things like which word is
more important and whether the phrase as a whole is a question or not, it doesn’t change
what words there are or what order they’re in. Which lets us deal with these two, but there’s
still a case to be made that English is tonal because of “accent.” What I mean by accent is that within a word
some syllables feel more prominent or important than others. In “permit” the accent is on the first
syllable, while in “permit” it’s on the second one. It looks a lot like the main way we tell which
syllable has the accent is the fact that the accented syllable has a higher pitch, so English
uses pitch to distinguish between words, so that must make it tonal. However, there are two huge differences between
what English does and what true tonal languages do. The first is that pitch isn’t always the
main way we tell where the accent is in a word. Thing is, in English, when a word is the focus
of a whole sentence, we usually give the accented syllable of that word higher pitch, and when
we say “permit” and “permit” all on their own like that we’re kind of saying
them as if they’re making up a whole sentence all on their own, so of course they’re going
to have the focus, so of course we’re going to make the accented syllable higher pitched. But listen to the way I say them in context
when they don’t have the sentence’s focus: “I didn’t permit that.” “I didn’t give him the permit”
And if we cut those words out of the surrounding recording and play them back…
“permit” “permit” Suddenly it doesn’t sound like pitch is
the main thing we’re using to tell them apart. In this context you can show that it’s actually
the relative length of the two syllables, or which of them you spend more time pronouncing,
that’s doing most of the work of getting across which syllable has the accent. That length difference is there whether or
not that word has the focus of the sentence, which makes it seem like it’s actually the
main signifier of stress and not pitch. The second reason English accent doesn’t
count as tone is that English accent is syntagmatic rather than paradigmatic. I told you we were gonna get technical. Alright, let me try to explain. If English really had tones then it would
be natural to ask “ok, how many tones does it have?” and the answer would seem to be
two, one for when a syllable is accented and one for when it’s unaccented. But that would imply that a two syllable word
could have one of four different tone patterns: one where the first one’s accented, one
where the second one’s accented, one where both are and one where neither are. But that’s not allowed: each word needs
to have exactly one accented syllable: no more, no less. Permit and permit are both valid words, but
PER-MIT and permit aren’t. This makes it look like English accent isn’t
really an innate quality of the syllable, but rather, which syllable is accented is
a property of the word. If the accented-ness of each syllable varied
independently then we could call English accent paradigmatic, but the fact that they can’t
and that each word has exactly one accent means that it’s syntagmatic. With this in mind we can say that a tonal
language is a language that makes paradigmatic lexical distinctions based primarily on pitch
and English pretty clearly fails that definition. In fact, there are cases of languages that
are even closer to being tonal but still don’t meet this bar. Japanese has syntagmatic accent like English,
but unlike in English this accent is primarily distinguished using pitch. Languages like these are called pitch-accent
languages, because, well, they mark accents with pitch. So, I hope that clears up why English isn’t
tonal, but for me at least, all of this kind of raised more questions than it answered. Like, if English uses pitch to communicate
post-lexical information, like which word is most important or whether the sentence
is a question, then can tonal languages not do that? Like, if Chinese is already using pitch so
much to distinguish between different words, it sounds like they wouldn’t be able to
use pitch to emphasize words or mark questions like English speakers do. But that’s not actually true. It works differently than in English, but
Chinese uses pitch to communicate both lexical and post-lexical information. One way that linguists used to think about
this was basically in terms of adding functions. You start with a function for the overall
pitch of the whole sentence, which communicates post-lexical information, and then you get
another function that describes the tone of each word, and then you just add the two functions
together to get the way the pitch will vary over the course of the sentence. This is called the overlay model, because
you’re sort of overlaying different things that affect the pitch, and it’s pretty similar
to the way a lot of people subjectively experience how pitch works in tonal languages. I think it’s also a good way to introduce
someone to the idea that in tonal languages you can use pitch both to distinguish between
words and to communicate all the stuff the rest of it use it for. Only problem is, it’s kinda wrong. Thing is, if you actually use the overlay
model to make predictions about how the pitch of someone’s voice will change over the
course of a sentence, and then you go out and test it, the results aren’t great. It took linguists a long time to figure that
out, in large part because it hasn’t been very long since the equipment necessary to
measure this kind of thing objectively was invented. But once it was invented it wasn’t long
before there were a lot of tech companies who wanted to make computers that could communicate
with humans with normal spoken language, and these tech companies suddenly got extremely
interested in getting this kind of thing right, so all of a sudden there was both the means
and the pressure to do some actual science to this area of linguistics, and the main
result of that was the Auto-segmental Metrical Theory. Whereas the overlay model makes it sound like
the speech centers of our brains are generating two or more functions and then adding them
together to produce the pitch we want to make, the AM theory says that it’s much more useful
to think of a chunk of speech as containing a linear string of tonal events. Each language will have a limited number of
possible tone events, rules for how tone events are actually realized in the pitch of someone’s
voice and rules for which tone events happen when depending on what words we’re saying,
the syntactic structure that they’re in and whatever post-lexical information we want
to communicate. These rules might be very complicated and
they’re going to be different in different languages, but this basic model has proven
to be very useful for modeling how different languages deal with pitch differently. For instance, with Mandarin Chinese some words
in a sentence will be more important than others, and a lot of the time this is marked
by an exaggeration of the tone it would have otherwise. Low tones get lower and high tones get higher. This can be described within the AM framework
reasonably easily, you can just say that the string of tone events is different depending
on what lexical tones there are and also depending on which word has the focus, and that when
the tone events mark a word as having the focus it winds up getting realized as an exaggerated
form of the normal tone. I’m not entirely sure how one would explain
this with an overlay model. There’s a lot more I could get into. Each language has its own unique system for
combining lexical and post-lexical information to create variations in pitch and volume and
timing, but I hope that now the idea of tonal languages at least makes a bit more sense
to you. See you soon for more linguistics videos!

100 Replies to “Is English a Tonal Language?”

  • The real question this poses, is if tone and emphasis are the same thing. I'd argue that they are not. You can emphasize without changing tone, we just usually don't because it sounds less conversational and more robotic.

  • 5:39 "Each word has exactly one syllable" It does? Really??? Words with three of more syllables regularly stress every second syllable, e.g. " prom – is cu – ity "

  • In Chinese we actually create characters for post-lexical meanings like "嗎"
    this character often sticks behind question sentences. and its tone is high which makes the whole sentence's tone relatively rise at the end

  • Introduction of tones adds another dimension of phonetic variations, which makes one syllable able to carry more information(like a 4-byte RGB color with an extra Alpha channel), thus contributes to reduced syllable count and simplified vowels and consonants. That makes it possible for modern northern Chinese language (Mandarin) to totally drop the ending consonants (k p t) and solely rely on tones to distinguish syllables.

  • Three common phonetic strategies to distinguish meanings:
    1, Increasing number of syllables(Japanese),
    2, Adding consonants within a single syllable (Germanic/Proto Sino Tibetan),
    3, Introducing tones,

  • I’m Spanish and in Spanish accents are very important while writing so I already knew this because I learned when I was eight. These words that are only differentiated by accent are written differently in Spanish:
    Comete ( cométe ) = He/she commits.
    Cómete (cómete) = eat yourself.

  • huh? – what did you say, I wasn't paying attention?
    huuh? – what did you say, I didn't understand?
    huuh – that was weird
    huh – ok then
    huh! – that was curiously funny
    h(u)h – i'm too tired to laugh right now, but I understood the humor
    hUh? – you've just said something really dumb, are you sure you know what you're talking about?

    1 word that means complete opposites in multitude succession…..all tonal, none taught, yet mostly understood. I think it might even be built-in to human understanding across all languages, maybe back to the caveman days of grunting?

  • The majority of what I watch on YouTube is educational to some extent, and for me personally I think that you’re more effective at educating me than any other channel I watch, at least in comparison to the complexity of what you’re trying to explain. So thank you.👍

  • Hello Xidnaf, I really like your videos! Is it okay if I make chinese subtitle for this video and post it onto a chinese video website called Bilibili? I promise I will give a credit to you! Thank you!

  • wow i just started learning Japanese and its only getting harder the more i learn. this video helped me understand why. dont see it getting any easier any time soon thats for sure.

  • In Chinese,ma (tone 3) 马 means hourse,what was demonstrated in the video was actually ma (tone 2) 麻,which means fibre,sesame,anaesthesia, or numb. Tone 2 is the rising tone, while tone 3 is the low dip tone, your pitch contour drops down and creates a curve before it rises up.

  • I don't understand why the paradigmatic condition needs to be fulfilled to classify English as a tonal language (I am arguing only for English, and not for general languages and I think the reason will become apparent soon). Yes, in paradigmatic languages the accented-ness of the syllable should vary independently of the word it is part of. For example, "ma" should have a certain accent irrespective of what word it is part of. However, how is that a logical expectation given that most words in English are formed from multiple syllables? Well, not exactly syllables, but at least more than 1 of either consonant or vowels used in the word (e.g. Horse has one syllable but it two consonants: "h" and "rs", where "rs" act as one consonant). Let's call it the smallest unit of breath.

    So, for example, how is "ma" supposed to have a consistent accent given that by itself it has no meaning (ignoring the ma=mother bit)? In Chinese or Korean (I think Korean is also a tonal language), most words are formed by one syllable only, and multi-syllable words are two words combined together to form an object of a larger scale, to indicate possession, tense etc. Thus, this is a logical criteria that each word (and since syllables are words, each syllable) have a consistent tone. In fact, maybe that's why tone evolved in this kind of language system.

    In English, this doesn't make sense since each syllable (or the smallest unit of breath, see above) has no meaning.

    So, to stretch this argument further, for English to have the paradigmatic condition doesn't follow from another condition, which is that pitch should be distinguished at the lexical level. Asking for a paradigmatic condition in English means you are asking for pitch to actually be distinguished at a PRE-LEXICAL LEVEL (sorry for the caps, just wanted to emphasize that. I am not yelling). Thus, now your conditions are that pitch should be distinguish words at both the pre-lexical and lexical level. This is not sensible, because there is no unit of meaning that exists at the pre-lexical level in English (if this was true, as it may be true for other languages, I would agree with the three conditions presented).

    That's all for my argument. Thanks for making this video, great video.

  • Australian English also has something called an "Australian Question Inflection." In an Aussie accent, the last few words tend to raise in pitch even when it's not a sentence. So that accent has a tonal property to it as well.

  • tone can be used to signify an inquisition, prescription, description, topic, intent, and most commonly emotion… and probably more?
    TBH I would love to know if there is actually more and if those kinds of things have a classification.

    ps tangents
    there are also a few (well actually quite alot when I think about it) words in english that change meaning completely 180 backwards on themselves if not on some tangent due to tone. for instance think of a single curse word where the speed, timbre, stress, and/or tone you use doesnt change the meaning. so, maybe the alphabet isnt strictly speaking tonal, the language on the whole is really contextual in that sense. (or at least it can, it can also be really bland if you use no inflection)

    this is actually my major reasoning for thinking that english is *probably* the best language because you can almost will any given word into meaning just by putting in some effort.

  • i thought the tone didn’t matter. it only matters what context the sentence it’s in right?
    like i understand questions. but im talkin about the permit thing

    “i permit you to enter the door”

    “im giving you a permit”

    the context of the sentence gives the word meaning.

  • In Tagalog idk if its a tonal language
    Most likely that it depends how you use the word accept for a word i know which is “baka”
    It means cow but if you rise the a i think like “báka” it means maybe

  • Just started Applied Linguistics classes recently…and so, I found some stuff about Pitch accent…Tonal Languages..what the heck is that? Such a Blow Mind!

  • No, English is not tonal, the examples given here are stress and rising, stress is when you pronounce a word differently based on while syllable is stressed (see CONvert and conVERT), while rising is the aspect of when your voice changes pitch when asking a question.

  • I watched one video on phonetically consistent english and now I'm getting all these english vids in my feed… I am enjoying it though, very interesting video!

  • I'm still confused about how singing works in these languages. Like, how can the speakers understand what's being sung if the pitch of the singing obviously doesn't match the pitch/tone of the syllables of the lyrics?

  • I've seen an experiment where people said words like 'lit', 'sit' etc using sliding pitch and they were treated by listeners like 'leat', 'seat' etc even when words were pronounced short.

  • just a question: as a Californian, I heard that Californians often intonate their sentences like questions. why does this happen?

  • put it this way:
    do english speakers easily understand the concept of a tonal language and not struggle with or question the necessity of the concept of tone in words when hearing about it or attempting to learn a language where this feature is important in the distinguishing of words? cuz if not, english isn't a tonal language. and it's not.

  • Italian could be considered tonal then. You ask a question and make a statement with the same words.

    Noi mangeremo = We will eat

    Noi mangeremo? = We will eat?

  • My Chinese friend told me there's a lot of context clues going on too. Like if you mess up the pitch, people are going to know that your taking your mom out to dinner rather than taking your horse out to dinner.

  • As a British citizen, I am very happy that somebody finally used a British flag 🇬🇧 for English rather than our lazy counterparts.

  • Kiswahili is 100% non tonal. That's why it is easy to learn, speak, read and write. That's why there is no spelling bee competition in Swahili. It would be ridiculous to have one.

  • It seems to me as if changing the pitch in english adds meaning to the thing you want to say rather then change the meaning of it

  • This video rocks! I was just recently wondering whether tonal languages can use tone to emphasize words in a sentence without tampering with the meaning of the individual words. It was making me sad thinking that Mandarin speakers might not be able to put nuance and personality into their sentences because they used up their tone powers on specifying word meaning. I’m so glad my guess was wrong! I suppose I wasn’t considering how flexible language can be when it needs to be.

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