In Chinese, words can have different meanings if their tones are changed, e.g. 是 (shì) and 十 (shí). In Italian, words can have different meanings if a consonant is geminated, e.g. sete and sette.

My question is: is there any language whose words can have different meanings based only on the loudness of the utterance? If so, please provide examples.

  • In danish, "Jeg står på bussen" can mean "I get on the bus" or "I'm standing on the bus" depending on how much you stress "står". – Hans Kilian Feb 19 at 11:27
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    In English you can change the pronunciation of "the" to stress that something is unique or exemplary – Aaron F Feb 19 at 11:29
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    Not changing the meaning of a word, but for an entire sentence: "WHY DID YOU ASK THIS QUESTION?!?" – Chronocidal Feb 19 at 14:38
  • Regarding the Danish example. Stress is a combination of loudness and other factors. I am asking for a change in loudness only. The English example with "the", has a similar issue, also it's a meaning inside a bigger group of words. – GA1 Mar 6 at 15:45
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    You could argue that there is a difference between ‘no’ (simple disagreement) and ‘NO!!!’ (strong disagreement), which is only loudness; but the tendency for shouting to intensify the speaker’s attitude is, I think, so universal that if you count that, the question instead becomes whether there are any languages where loudness alone doesn’t influence meaning. – Janus Bahs Jacquet 2 days ago

Intensity is the physical correlate of loudness, and is also a correlate of stress in some languages. Moreover, stress can create differences in meaning in some languages (e.g. PRO-test vs. pro-TEST); we say that such languages have lexical stress, or that stress is lexically distinctive. It follows that if we can find a language where intensity is a good correlate of stress, and stress is lexically distinctive, that would answer your question.

One example is Papiamentu (Remijsen and van Heuven, 2005), and I'm sure there are others.

Note: I'm responding to the question in your title. The question in your main text adds the qualifier only, which makes such cases a bit harder to find, because intensity usually isn't the only cue for stress. Although I doubt pitch is the only cue for tone in your Mandarin example either, since tone also affects duration...

Remijsen, Bert & Vincent J. Van Heuven. 2005. Stress, tone and discourse prominence in the Curaçao dialect of Papiamentu. Phonology 22(2). 205–235.

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  • It's important to mention that stress is relative. This is not the case for the Italian example. – Keelan Feb 18 at 13:54
  • Of course it is. In a quip: Everything is relative. – vectory Feb 18 at 17:28
  • @vectory apparently you did not read my comment. Also please @ me when replying. – Keelan Feb 18 at 19:53
  • I'm reading it again. I still think you are disagreeing just for sake of the argument. I certainly was. Now I have to defend it? Say, the long consonant is surely not independent from the vowel, which is relative. Not my field though. @Keelan – vectory Feb 18 at 20:11
  • In English stress coincides with raised pitch. An example of a language that only uses volume would be good. – CJ Dennis Feb 19 at 2:42

In Russian the word stress is marked purely by the loudness/force of the syllable (contrary to other Slavic languages where the stress may be also marked by the length or the pitch.) This stress may alter meaning of words, with the most notorious example being verbs "писать" and "писать" meaning respectively "to write" and "to pee". This is a subject of many jokes, such as "Tchaikovsky wrote a lot, and wrote the 'Swan lake'." ;)

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    Isn't it also marked by progressive reduction of unstressed vowels? – LjL Feb 18 at 12:45
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    I think the reduction of unstressed vowels is a consequence of them being not stressed, rather than an independent marker. In the example given above there is no such reduction. – Vadim Feb 18 at 13:31
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    I didn't say it was independent, but since you compared it to languages that "also" mark it by length or pitch (usually in addition to "loudness/force", meaning you can pick one of them as primary and then the other won't be independent), it seemed relevant. – LjL Feb 19 at 14:24
  • Is vowel reduction a stress marker at all? – Vadim Feb 19 at 14:50
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    Duration, which is of course linked to vowel reduction, is also an important cue for stress in Russian. – Miztli Feb 20 at 17:20

A contested and debated case with different opinions is the case of final obstruent devoicing in many languages; it has been claimed by a lot of research, and contested by others, that in spite of these languages devoicing voiced obstruents in the coda of syllables that the loudness difference between the original fortis and lenis pairs remains, and that this difference can in fact be used by native speakers to differentiate between minimal pairs with higher than chance accuracy.

It's also contested, in this case, just how much of it is purely the loudness and whether it's also the length or the minimal length difference of the vowel that comes before it that cues native speakers. Historically, the German pairs of "Rat" and "Rad" were thought to be pronounced identically, but careful accoustic analysis often finds that the /t/ in the former is realized louder than the /d/ in the latter, despite both being devoiced.

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