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Mandarin Chinese is often used as an example of a tonal language (one where the meaning of a word depends not only on its articulation but also on its pitch contour).

However, going by what I've read, tone does not actually appear to be vital in Mandarin:

  • When singing in Mandarin, the pitch contour of the lyrics follows that of the melody of the song, even when this conflicts with the pitch contour normally expected for a given syllable. For a language in which tone is truly phonemic, this tone-scrambling would render the lyrics unintelligible unless the lyrics are carefully chosen to match pitch contours with the music. Yet Mandarin remains fully-comprehensible even when the pitch contour of the music is completely wrong for that of the syllables making up the lyrics, as detailed in the answers to this LingSE question as well as in this Reddit thread involving several native speakers of Mandarin.1
  • Additionally, Mandarin remains fully-intelligible when written in a script with no provision for tone marking, as can be seen in the xiao'erjing style of writing, which uses vocalized Arabic script to write Mandarin. If tone were phonemic for Mandarin, one would expect that writing the language in a script incapable of indicating the tones being used would leave the reader with too little information to determine what was written - which is evidently not the case with Mandarin.

Given the above, is Mandarin actually a tonal language, as opposed to merely one with unusually-highly-pervasive intonation?


1: By way of contrast, singing in Cantonese does apparently require that the lyrics be chosen to match the music's pitch contour in order to avoid ending up with gibberish.

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    Note that when a person whispers, all the consonants are pronounced voiceless which no way hinders comprehensibility although voicing is a phonemic factor in many languages, in English for fricatives and affricats, and also for stops in the Romance and Slavic languages. Using your logic, being able to understand whispered Russian proves its voicing isn't phonemic, which is in fact not so.
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 4, 2021 at 7:54
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    Cantonese does not require tones in singing to be comprehensible any more than Mandarin does – both can be easily understood if the lyrics are clear enough. There is a strong tendency that Cantonese does maintain tone when singing, as much as feasible, while Mandarin doesn’t, but you can break that tendency in Cantonese without losing intelligibility. It’s also perfectly common for Mandarin speakers not to understand lyrics until they see them written down, but this is true of English speakers and English lyrics as well. Singing inherently reduces clarity and intelligibility. Nov 4, 2021 at 8:09
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    And of course there are tonal languages whose writing systems don’t reflect tones at all – that has no bearing on whether tones are phonemic. In fact, nothing about a writing system has any bearing on what is and isn’t phonemic. As user6726 says, Arabic doesn’t write vowels, but they’re phonemic. Amharic doesn’t write phonemic geminates. English doesn’t write phonemic vowel length. Danish doesn’t write phonemic stød. Pahlavi leaves out so much phonemic information it’s a wonder anyone could read it at all. Nov 4, 2021 at 8:15
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    Nglsh txt s prfctl ndrstndbl whn wrttn wtht n vwls, bt tht dsnt mn vwls rnt phnmc n Nglsh. Lkws, th blt t ndrstnd Mndrn wrttn wtht tn dsnt mn tn snt phnmc
    – Tristan
    Nov 4, 2021 at 9:28
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    I remember asking about the music thing to a Mandarin-speaking friend. He said context and loneliness are almost always enough to distinguish the intended tones. But there was one love song popular when he was younger that made everyone laugh because the tones of a line in the chorus sounded like "Your brother is a pig" Nov 6, 2021 at 11:58

2 Answers 2

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Tone actually is phonemic in Mandarin. For example, it is the only thing that distinguishes dā "to hang over", dá "to answer", dǎ "to beat" and dà "big". There are very many other examples. That is what it means to be "phonemic".

There is a completely different question about whether tone is "absolutely essential to comprehension". Among consonants, [ts tʃ tɕ] are also phonemic, but they are somewhat dispensible in that some speakers (not native Beijing Mandarin speakers) have one sibilant series, and they can be understood. In general, "absolutely essential to comprehension" is a pretty high bar. People will anecdotally claim that they can't understand those who mispronounce words (not just in Mandarin), but in reality, complete non-comprehension takes more than messing up pronunciation by not implementing some handful of phonemic distinctions.

It's an interesting fact that no language is rendered incomprehensible by not including phonemic tone in the writing system. It's kind of like the fact that Arabic is not rendered incomprehensible when vowels are omitted. sspct tht mst pple cn mk sns f mtltd txt gvn th rdndncy f lngg.

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  • S wht y dd thr. ;-)
    – Vikki
    Nov 4, 2021 at 1:40
  • And regarding Arabic and vowels, it helps that Arabic has a) a very rigid syllable structure, making it easy to tell where the vowels are supposed to go, and b) only three vowels, making it easy to figure out which is the right one based on context alone.
    – Vikki
    Nov 4, 2021 at 1:42
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    @Vikki with Arabic there's also the fact that vowels are often more morphosyntactic than lexical and so knowledge of the utterance's morphosyntax from other means help predict the vocalisation
    – Tristan
    Nov 4, 2021 at 9:30
  • Are you talking about phonology (e.g. in Chinese) or orthography (e.g. in Arabic)?
    – fdb
    Nov 4, 2021 at 15:52
  • Ingg? <crtnly dnt ndrstnd tht! Wht s t? Nov 4, 2021 at 23:24
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Even spoken in a robot-like tone in which all the four tones are reduced to a single one, it's still not difficult for a Mandarin speaker to understand the meaning of the utterance (provided the utterance is not too short so we can get enough context).

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