More Than Just Chinese: A Guide to Tonal Languages

This week’s language of the week is Punjabi, so, just like many of you, we’ve been learning more about it. Turns out, we discovered something quite interesting: Punjabi, the same as Mandarin, Cantonese and even Yoruba, is a tonal language! Not sure what that means? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

Let’s start with what a tonal language is. Now, even if you don’t speak a tonal language, you’ll use the pitch of your voice to communicate at one time or another. In languages like English, this is usually through intonation, which can carry emphasis. A good example is a phenomenon called ‘upspeak’ or ‘uptalk’, where the intonation rises at the end of any utterance, even if there isn’t a question being asked. It often occurs in American or Australian English, though it has also been recorded as happening in British English since the end of World War Two. 

That’s how pitch—or tone of voice—affects non-tonal languages, so what’s the difference between a non-tonal and tonal language? Basically, a tonal language relies on tones to get across meaning. This can be a grammatical feature, where tone marks certain verb tenses, or it can be a lexical one, where tone differentiates between words that would otherwise sound exactly the same.

What are some examples of tonal languages?

The most famous language for using tones is also the most-spoken one: Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin has four (or five, if you include the neutral tone). The first tone is high and level (mā), the second rises (má), the third falls and then rises again (mǎ) and the fourth drops sharply (mà).

In this case, the tones are used to differentiate between homonyms—words that sound the same. Each of those ‘ma’ syllables has a different meaning:

mā – 妈 – mother

má – 麻 – hemp

mǎ – 马 – horse

mà – 骂 – scold

The fifth tone is not shown here because it is usually used in words of more than one syllable. There are, of course, exceptions to this—namely, grammatical particles, which often use the fifth neutral tone. An example of this would be de (的), which is used to show possession.

Many other Chinese languages are tonal as well, including Cantonese, which has six tones, Shanghainese, a dialect of Wu Chinese, which has five tones (and where tone changes can affect whole phrases!), or the Meixian dialect of Hakka Chinese, spoken in southern China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, which has four tones, like Mandarin.

Tonal languages don’t just exist on the Sino-Tibetan language tree, either. Vietnamese has six tones and Yoruba (spoken in Nigeria) and Zulu (spoken in South Africa) have three apiece. Navajo, spoken primarily in the southwest of the United States, has four tones.

So, how have all these different languages, geographically scattered and from various language families, ended up being tonal—especially when there are so many languages that aren’t?

Where do tones come from?

The short answer is: nobody really knows. 

We do know that some tonal languages have a more limited number of consonants than non-tonal languages—Mandarin being a prime example, with tones identifying the meaning of homonyms. However, a 2015 study may have managed to shed a little more light on the matter. 

Caleb Everett, Damián E. Blasi, and Seán G. Roberts investigated whether environmental variables could affect the way in which languages develop; particularly, whether humid environments might lead to the development of more languages with tonal variety. The hypothesis was that a dry environment leads to less flexibility of people’s vocal cords and, therefore, less movement. After analysing data from almost 4,000 different languages, the researchers found that their results ‘offer evidence that human sound systems are influenced by environmental factors.’

Of course, this doesn’t entirely explain why languages that are from the same geographical area can end up with such a wide range of tones, but it is a good starting point when we look at where tonal languages come from.

What about tones in Punjabi?

Punjabi has three tones: high-falling, low-rising, and level, which is also known as the neutral tone. Around 75% of words use the neutral tone and some people, in fact, describe this as an absence of tone, meaning that Punjabi, despite being a tonal language, does not rely on them to the same extent as many, for example, Cantonese speakers might do.

There has been a fair amount of research into Punjabi tones, though some of it has been contradictory. Generally, researchers agree that there are three tones. However, some claim that the use of tones is related to syllable structure or stress, whereas others say that there is a relationship between tone and historically aspirated consonants.

Here’s where it gets a bit technical.

Aspiration (when we’re talking about phonetics) refers to the strong burst of breath that accompanies the release of a speech sound that is formed by obstructing airflow. To show you the difference, try saying the word distend and then the word distaste. Did you notice anything about how you pronounced the ‘t’ in distend and the first ‘t’ in distaste? 

Basically, because distaste is two morphemes, you will most likely pronounce the first ‘t’ as an aspirated sound, so there’ll be a puff of air after it. This doesn’t happen when you pronounce distend, because it’s read as one unit.

So, that’s an example of an aspirated consonant in English.

In Punjabi, things are a little different; lots of Indo-Aryan languages have a variety of these aspirated stops, but Punjabi has, over time, lost a specific subset of them. This has resulted in the tone system. At the beginning of a word, these voiced aspirated consonants that are now lost became voiceless unaspirated consonants followed by a high-falling tone. In the middle of words or at the end, they became voiced unaspirated consonants that are preceded by a low-rising tone.

What this all means is that, unlike Mandarin, tones are not vital for understanding in Punjabi—at least, not to the same extent. Of course, if you decide to learn Punjabi, you’ll have to make sure you’re pronouncing the words as accurately as you can; but it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to worry about calling your mother a horse!

Are tonal languages hard to learn?

If you’re not used to tones in a language, then sure, they’re not going to be the easiest thing for you to master. Hearing the distinctions will be difficult at first but it is something that can be learnt through exposure and practice. The best way is to make sure you have an understanding of them and their purpose (since that changes from language to language), then practice them alone and in whole sentences.

Whole sentences are key, as putting tones together can change the way they’re pronounced (fun!) and, well, you tend to speak in sentences, right? If you learn phrases or sentences as you’ll use them, then you’re being exposed to the kind of language you’ll need and you’re drilling the tones so that, eventually, you’ll be producing them naturally. 

Of course, this does mean relying a lot more on audio or videos than it does on reading a textbook, so make sure you choose your resources accordingly. And don’t worry if your tones don’t end up being as flawless as those of a native speaker—all you need to make sure is that you’re being understood!

uTalk helps you to learn around 2,500 words and phrases in over 150 languages. Our tonal languages include: Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Yoruba, Zulu, Chichewa (Malawi/Zimbabwe), and Luganda (Uganda). If you want to start learning today with the help of native speaker audio, then go ahead and download our app!

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