Among historically low income/education groups in the US and in my native Mexico City, "ghetto talk" is heavy on the use of pitch to convey meaning. I've always attributed this to people compensating for a lack of vocabulary with pitch cues.

So I'm wondering what "ghetto talk" is like in tonal languages. How do they "compensate" if not through pitch (which, I assume, would make things very confusing)? Or maybe my assumption about the relationship between pitch and the command of language in the West is just plain wrong...

My exposure to tonal languages is minimal, so I would really appreaciate an apples and oranges answer.

Edit: It was pointed out to me that my question could be interpreted as saying that tonal languages are somehow inferior to others. This is most definitely not what I mean, as arguing that variations in pitch are an objectively worse or better phonetic solution than consonants or vowels would be silly.

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    Just one value thing on this otherwise excellent question, you do know that in Linguistics no language has less or more of anything it is just different (say vocab in your question, it is not that they learnt less it is just that they took in words important to them). Am I right other SE people? Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 4:04
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    Oh no! It was of course not my intention to say that tonal languages are somehow inferior to languages that don't rely on pitch. Similarly, my (unsupported, unstudied) theory extends to body language in the case of low income/education groups (i.e. I think they also fall back on it), but that of course doesn't mean I think American Sign Language is somehow deficient.
    – suckrates
    Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 10:50
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    I added a note at the end. How is that?
    – suckrates
    Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 17:56
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    Could you give an example of pitch use in "ghetto talk"?
    – Tim Foster
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 15:16
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    @TimFoster street talk in Mexico City can be so sing-songy, that the lovers in this famous movie clip are able to communicate with whistles. The scene is exaggerated for comedic effect, but not too far from the truth. For English, look at Jordan Peele give the word "O.K." a dozen different meanings here.
    – suckrates
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 12:33

2 Answers 2


Lexical tones and prosody peacefully co-exist in these languages. The speakers intuitively use only those pitch contours that do not overlap with the lexical tones.

Even more, sometimes an exaggerated tone may serve as an intonation, and this is used in "ghetto talk".

Tonal contours in normal speech

Native speakers often dilute the lexical tones in day-by-day conversation. This phenomenon also becomes evident in situations when preserving tones is somewhat complicated: See this answer for how Chinese and Thai song writers differently deal with the situations when following melody contradict the lexical tones.

An example from personal experience

As an expat who lives in Thailand and studies Thai language, I tend to use the tones "properly", as they are taught in schools, unlike the natives who often "dilute" the tones. I'm often being told that my speech sounds more emotional than it should be. Trying to use less vivid tones solves the problem.

An example

Check the following video (YouTube). It's a trailer of a youth comedy "ATM: Er Rak Error". You will see many situations young people use slang, impolite expressions, and even expletives (to an extent it is allowed for use in movies rolled in theater and TV). Pay special attention to scenes when the young people talk to each other (when no boss around), and especially the final scene (at time mark 02:25). You will definitely notice extremely vivid tone contours for swear words.

  • The first sentence of this answered my question... and then you went the extra mile. Thanks for a great answer!
    – suckrates
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 15:57

Yes, your assumption on a correlation between pitch variance and vocabulary size is wrong. The use of pitch you speak of is called "prosody" in linguistics; different speaking groups in society may use different levels of pitch in their prosody, or even different prosodic melodies, without any predefined relationship to vocabulary or social standing (for example, in many Anglophone communities higher pitch variance may be associated with femininity, rather than ghetto-ness; while for a Japanese native of Morioka, Iwate, unusually high pitch variance may just signal the speaker as coming from the nearby city of Miyako).

Prosody is pitch at the level of phrases and sentences; tone is pitch at the level of words or syllables. In a tonal language, the shorter pitch sequences (tones) modulate the overall melody of the sentence (prosody), "like waves riding atop larger waves". Different speaking groups (and individual speakers) may vary the pitch more strikingly or more subtly, both in the wider prosodic melody, or in the shorter tonal notes; though, again, this difference isn't caused by vocabulary size or lack thereof.

  • Plus one for pointing me towards prosody.
    – suckrates
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 16:00

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