Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chinese without tones

This was inspired by a Lingomi Blog.
Many famous scholars write about how characters will (or should) be replaced by a romanized alphabet (link). But I’ve been wondering about whether Chinese could lose something else it’s famous for. Could Chinese ever lose its tones?

Chinese without tones? But aren’t tones kind of essential to Chinese? Yes, they are. If you’re learning Chinese and don’t know your tones, frustration will ensue. Tones are important (a subject I’ve been known to blog about), but there is one situation where tones don’t matter: music.

Why don’t chinese songs have tones, and how can Chinese speakers understand the words without them? (Ask antimoon has a few good answers to this question). The fact that Chinese people do understand music lyrics proves that it is possible for Chinese speakers to understand tone-less Chinese.

But could tone-less Chinese become more widespread?

D - I could not figure out how to post in their comment section.

I was thinking about the Bantu pitch register system.
Chinese is not conveniently sorted in a way that each tone denotes a certain grammatical category.

With 'ma', you might use:

•妈 mā mother
•麻 má bother
•马 mǎ horse
•骂 mà scold
•吗 ma (question tag)
If it helps, try a sentence like: "Mom is bothered by the horse's scolding - yes?" Not an entirely sensible sentence, but it at least catches all the five tones (including neutral) and in the right order.

The Thai language is a tonal language. This means that the same word said with a different tone, can mean totally different things. For example the word “mai” said with a low tone (l) means “new”. “Mai” said with a rising tone (r) makes a question. ”Mai” said with a falling tone (f) means “to burn”. “Mai” with a rising tone (r) spelt a different way means “silk”. So if I ask a Thai person the following question “Mai (r) mai (l) mai (f) mai (r)…. aka mai mai mai mai, I have asked the question “does new silk burn?”

D: if Chinese had a tone that corresponded to, say, verbs, then losing tone would be less ambiguous.
Take the example of "ma", meaning horse, hemp, mother and scold.
That is 3 nouns and 1 verb.
Now if we had ma mean horse, scold, big and quickly, we'd have something to work with.
Rigid SVO word order would ensure that the position of ma in a sentence would denote what grammatical function it served, even without tone.

So I guess I'm saying that while Chinese cannot avoid a vast # of homophones without tone, a designed language reminiscent of Chinese COULD avoid this. It could be used with variable word order by native speakers (or fluent ones) by using the tones in lieu of a 'latinate' affix system.


1 comment:

Dino Snider said...

At first, Thai looked like it might fit the bill. But "na", with 5 tones, can mean paddy field, a nickname, young uncle, face or thick.
So no luck.
Oh well.