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I have read that the language in China did not always use tones or was less reliant on them. Native speakers have emphasized to me how much more compactly the same idea can be expressed in Mandarin than in English.

Is there evidence that English is currently becoming more dependent on tones for meaning? Or if not English, is there any current language transitioning in this way?

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    English meaning is often dependent on intonation, not tones.
    – Lambie
    Feb 19, 2023 at 17:17
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    There are no such cases. Period.
    – Lambie
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:26
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    @Lambie: when we ask a question in English, I am pretty sure that is "rising tone" and changes meaning of statement. Perhaps you mean there are no cases where an actual word changes meaning?
    – releseabe
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:29
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    That rise and fall used in English has nothing to do with Chinese tones. Let's see. In Chinese, "ma" can be flat, rising then falling, rising or falling. Four different meanings that are part of its semantic meaning. Whereas in English, if I stress "go", it's just makes it a question, and is suprasegmental. Not part of the meaning of the word go. You want to gó? [the accent is just to show the rising intonation]. Intonation in English is suprasegmental.
    – Lambie
    Feb 20, 2023 at 20:26
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    @releseabe In your example, it is called rising intonation, not rising tone. Intonation in English can change meanings of a sentence overall but it is not part of a word in the dictionary as in Chinese where the tone of a word is in the dictionary.
    – Lambie
    Feb 22, 2023 at 18:21

8 Answers 8

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One reason why it is hard to find such languages is that there isn't a sharp distinction between tonal and non-tonal languages. There also exists a number of languages said to have "accents". Norwegian and Swedish are typically claimed to have two "accents" that can be applied to words, and the physical expression of the accent difference is in terms of the F0 pattern around the stressed syllable. Historically, this developed from an ordinary stress system, which got obscured by insertion of vowels and differential treatment of affixes / clitics. It has been argued that Estonian is developing into a quasi-tonal language in connection with its Q2 / Q3 distinction in long vowels, where the most reliable cue for Q3 vowel is its distinctive falling tone.

Another related problem is that it can very difficult to convincingly reconstruct the phonetics of prosodic distinctions to the level of 5,000 or more years ago. Bantu languages are generally very regular and predictable in their development from the proto-language of about 3,000 years ago (similar to reconstruction of proto-Germanic), but the tonal system is much less regular. So while there is no doubt that the Ur-language had distinctive H and L tones, the actual correspondences and reconstructions are the messiest. The same problem with reconstructing proto tonal systems means that we can't be sure about proto-Afroasiatic. The subgroups split geographically into tonal and non-tonal languages so that it is reasonable to posit that some languages changed from tonal to non-tonal, or the opposite to the complement set. We can't make a compelling argument that proto-Afroasiatic had tone, or that it lacked tone, and standard scientific logic deems that if you posit tone in the proto-language, you have to prove its existence (the other guy doesn't have to prove its lack). Therefore, Omotic, Cushitic and Chadic must have become tonal languages, rather than losing original tone. An alternative view is "we don't know, therefore we can't say whether these languages became tonal".

There are Dutch and German dialects in Rhine River area which have developed a tonal contrast. Here is a paper that summarizes how this happened, with references to literature going beat to the 19th century. A number of Indic languages of India have developed tone, for example Dogri and Punjabi developed a tone contrast from the loss of a voicing distinction in consonants; Sylheti which is in the Bengali-Assamese subgroup similarly has developed a tonal contrast from a phonatory contrast. Influence of consonants on pitch is the most common source of the development of tone from non-tone. Opinions are somewhat mixed over whether proto-Chinese had tone, but at most, the proto-language had a marginal phonetic pitch difference that got amplified into the system of rampant tonal contrasts in the modern languages, where the conditioning factor was preceding and following consonant types.

All told, it is pretty hard to establish any language that has been tonal "forever".

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    Especially for languages, forever is an extremely long time.
    – releseabe
    Feb 21, 2023 at 19:19
  • A pro pos Rheinisch, Platt varieties in general have a marked tonal pattern which is colloquially called Sing-Sang. Contrast across bilingual boundaries might lead to the elimination of this feature, clearly. Maybe the stereotype of German sounding harsh is to do with monotonic patterns.
    – vectory
    Nov 26, 2023 at 19:45
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My understanding is that Chinese gained tones when/before it lost syllable-final consonants. So when people started dropping for example /k/ at the end of a syllable they might compensate by adding a rising tone. Then later only the tones remain where different consonants used to be.

There's no reason something like this can't happen again. Vietnamese also developed tones despite being related to other Austroasiatic languages that didnt.

As for English I don't think there is any evidence that English or other European languages are becoming more tonal. Swedish has pitch-accent which is like a basic form of tone, but it evolved from syllable final consonants being dropped too.

I hope this helps.

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    The Swedish and Norwegian pitch accent did not develop from syllable-final consonants being dropped – that would make little sense, considering that both languages retain syllable-final consonants just fine (the only general exception being the ON word-final masculine nominative singular marker , which was lost). The pitch accent developed essentially from syllable structure (monosyllabic vs polysyllabic), with various complications and secondary factors playing in. Feb 19, 2023 at 11:49
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    And while loss of syllable-final consonants did play a role in Chinese tonogenesis (the loss of final -s is often assumed to have triggered a higher tone), it was just one factor – and don’t forget that many variants still have final /p t k/. The nature of onset consonants (‘muddy’ vs ‘clear’, that is voiced vs unvoiced) caused a low/high split in many variants, for example, and it’s been posited that the simplification of onset clusters was one of the first driving factors in tonal splits. Feb 19, 2023 at 11:54
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    One other quibble: "they might compensate by adding a rising tone" might be understood to mean that this was a more or less conscious process. (You may not have meant it that way, but I have seen people misunderstand this sort of thing). So I want to emphasize that, like most processes in language change, it will have happened unconsciouly and probably not even noticed by most people.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 19, 2023 at 15:15
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    Panjabi seems to be the only Indic language that's developed tones; the writing system already in use accommodates them in a very complex manner, using unusual letter combinations in Gurmukhi.
    – jlawler
    Feb 19, 2023 at 16:27
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    The notion that language change happens unconsciously is too simplistic. There are examples of a language community deciding from one day to the next that the grammar would be changed thus and so (although admittedly to make official an already existing trend). Dutch went through a phase ("Rederijkers") where an active community tinkered with innovative syntactical patterns (making Dutch arguably half a "conlang"). But the most pervasive mechanism is "jocular2normal" where people start saying things differently for fun (or to annoy daddy), only to be adopted as normal by the next generation.
    – Deipatrous
    Feb 23, 2023 at 7:09
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A good example is "uptalk" inflection in English. Did it originate in California, or Australia? Oh, says a very elderly lady from Dorset, we used to do that when I was very young.

We may conclude that uptalk is almost like a virus lying dormant in the English language, flaring up from time to time.

However, it does not change the meaning. For that, we should be able to record a minimal pair where the two words differ semantically with the only phonological difference being +/- uptalk. True tonality is established when tone changes meaning in the same way vowels do: a root is not a rate.

Which is not to say that English might not develop in such a direction. My point is to observe that the "raw materials" for the development of tonality are present in all natural languages.

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  • i very much like to think of analogies between biology and language -- i am sure the principles of evolution apply in language also. a virus -- interesting.
    – releseabe
    Feb 20, 2023 at 8:38
  • I think something like a "latent gene" might be a better analogy - there normally isn't an external force in some kind of opposition to the "true" language, just potential features that sometimes find expression, resulting in changes to the "normal" characteristics of the language.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 21, 2023 at 22:41
  • I agree with IMSoPs comments. Dormant viruses actually operate by being latent genes.
    – Deipatrous
    Feb 23, 2023 at 7:01
  • Uptalk involves intonation not tones.
    – Lambie
    Feb 24, 2023 at 19:08
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Contemporary Seoul Korean is currently (as of the early 21st century) undergoing a fairly classic example of early tonogenesis, where it is an allophonic feature of the tense/lax/aspirated (fortis/lenis/aspirated) distinction in initial consonants. It is currently not contrastive for most people; whether it will push the language over into being 'tonal' or at least pitch accent, time will tell.

It is important to distinguish various phonetic features of relative pitch, change in pitch, different types of phonation (breathy, murmured, aspirated), etc. from the phonemic features of lexical and morphological tone (and consonant aspiration, vowel phonation etc.). At the same time, the crossover of phonemicisation when language is changing can be subtle, and it is this crossover point that we are seeing for different populations within speakers of Seoul Korean.

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  • Well, it was observed to be happening in the 80's, but yeah. Also amusing that Seoul Korean is re-discovering tone which it lost some centuries ago.
    – user6726
    Feb 22, 2023 at 19:29
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The general phenomenon you're looking for is called tonogenesis and there's a fair amount of literature on it.

It's behind a paywall, but in the event that you can get access this is a good overview from a couple years ago.

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This is a challenge to the assertion in the question Native speakers have emphasized to me how much more compactly the same idea can be expressed in Mandarin than in English.

According to the paper Christophe Coupé, Yoon Oh, Dan Dediu, and François Pellegrino, Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche the speech rate measured in bit/s is approximately constant with respect to the language and they give a value of 39 ± 5 bit/s. English and Chinese were among the languages studied in this work. More information per syllably is compensated by slower speech, essentially.

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  • he also mentioned how much shorter the same book in chinese vs english is. but no one convinces me that written chinese is a better system than an alphabet -- i tried to read a japanese graphic novel with an english/japanese dictionary. forget about it.
    – releseabe
    Nov 22, 2023 at 15:34
  • @releseabe Written Chinese unquestionably takes up less space than English, but that is due to two factors that make text shorter: (a) a fully isolating language with short words and virtually no morphology (so no endings), and (b) each unit in the writing system representing a whole syllable. Vietnamese has (a), but is written in the Latin alphabet, so it still takes up more space; Korean has (b), but is highly inflected and has longer words. Chinese has both (a) and (b), so full words rarely need more than three written units, and the script is very space-efficient. Nov 22, 2023 at 16:08
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: But u wd agree it is very tough to learn and the approach taken to learn it, endless and unquestioning acceptance of stroke order, pervades or at least pervaded their educational system. As I understand it, the Chinese imperial government saw the difficulties as a plus and as late as the 19th century it was illegal to teach it to westerners although of course this law was violated. I think I read that western scholars did not know if characters represented sounds or ideas -- does not make much sense since any literate bilingual person could have cleared this up.
    – releseabe
    Nov 22, 2023 at 16:48
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    @releseabe Yes, it is of course difficult to master any writing system that requires learning several thousand distinct and only partly predictable units. Stroke order is still very important, and quite rightly so, actually: because differences between characters can be very minute, and handwritten characters are often quite simplified (but generally in roughly the same ways), it’s essential to write them in the same stroke order to make sure they’re still reasonably recognisable even when written quickly. Nov 22, 2023 at 17:09
  • The complexity of written language is an even stranger beast, measured in bits/text on the same text (e.g., a Bible translation). There seems to be a tendency that languages with larger numbers of speakers have a more complex written language than languages with smaller speech communities. Nov 23, 2023 at 10:23
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My basic understanding is: A tonal language is about that the change in tonal pattern in its lexicons would change the meanings of the lexicons individually rather than about the meaning within any larger composition, expressions, sentences, statements, clauses, etc..

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  • maybe this could be rephrased more simply?
    – releseabe
    Feb 22, 2023 at 10:28
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In tonal languages, meanings of words are given by phonemes + tones. Below is the most famous example often used to explain this to people who do not speak a tonal language. The example is from Chinese.

actual fluency

enter image description here

Intonation, on the other hand, is a suprasegmental feature that is not part of the definition of a word as found in the dictionary.

Here is an example of how intonation is graphically shown to those studying it. Intonation refers to a pattern that occurs over an utterance or sentence.

In English we have four kinds of intonation patterns: (1) falling, (2) rising, (3) non-final, and (4) wavering intonation. Let’s learn about each one. Please click through to see all the examples.

In addition to those four types, one can also emphasize a particular word in order to change meaning: Did you see the cat in the yard? Did you see the cat in the yard? Did you see the cat in the yard? Did you see the cat in the yard?

Intonation is hard to show easily but here is one person who has done a good job of it:

intonation patterns

The blog of Afzal Rahim. Kudos to him.

So, there is simply not any reason to think that tones understood as a component of word meaning in tonal languages is something that English will "evolve" into.

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