Chinese and the 4 tones

Posted On: Monday - October 24th 2022 8:10PM MST
In Topics: 
  Humor  China

Peak Stupidity wrote something on this subject over 5 years ago - On the Chinese Language .. and some music from Asia Aja. Since it's been so long, most readers likely have not read the quick anecdote regarding the difficulty of the Chinese spoken language(s). Therefore, I'll just paste it in and then insert the additional humorous anecdote of the same phenomena:
A friend and I were in a taxi cab in downtown Shanghai, China, having been sent to a hotel by Shanghai Connie - no, no relation to Shanghai Lil (who never used the pill) of Rod Stewart's "Every Picture tells a Story (Don't it?)" This guy driving the taxi did not seem at all familiar with the directions our Chinese friend had told him. Oh, did I write already that the city of Shanghai is about as big as 3 New York Cities? Well, we tried to jog this guy's memory of the neighborhood and street with our best pronunciation of the address "Loo Wah Loo" (see, the 2nd "Loo" means street, so that should have been easy).

I did my best to get the address across to this taxi driver, but I am not good with languages other than FORTRAN and a little C. He was shaking his head and looking up at buildings out the window. Not good, not good at all. My friend can do a good Beavis AND Butthead and other imitations, so he was all "I've been learning some Chinese on youtube, I've got this!" He sounded a lot better: "Loo Wah! Loo?!" Oh, did I write already that there are 4 tones in Chinese pronunciation? Hey, it sounds easy, but if you are not used to using them, you will just figure you said things correctly when you have not. "Loo! Wa-ah Luooo?"

Now, the guy was shrugging, but then I finally realized that I had put a business card for the hotel in my pocket, so I handed it to him. That seemed to do it. "Ahh! Loo Wah Loo!". "That's what the fuck we've just been saying!" my friend and I said at the same time, happily. We got to the hotel, and of course, after that jinx of simultaneous expression, someone should have been buying a coke. However, both of us having heard the whole "Me Chinese, me play joke ..." cultural microaggression enough times in our youths, we both thought better of it.
A serious effort at being fluent in Chinese* requires the Western student to get into his thick head that one of the 4 tones is an integral part of each syllable. Those 4 are the downward pitch, upward pitch, down-then-up, and flat but higher sound. Believe it or not, the 3rd one is the one that I find easier to say correctly and pick out while listening. That last one is likely why the language sounds so sing-songy.**

It's really difficult to realize that if you say "cat" accented differently that a Chinese-speaker is not trying to be a jerk about it, but he really doesn't take in that sound as the same syllable each way. The other side of that is that, because we use accenting for different reasons, such as conveying emotion, we may interpret the Chinese tones as having a meaning that is not intended - they just go with the words. That's the 2nd anecdote:

The same friend from the taxicab told me how he had been talking to some lady in the north of China on the phone. That'd be in the big city of Tianjin, east of Peking. This lady was giving him directions in English to get there, in fact. As he mentioned the city in question, she corrected his speech. "No, TianJIN!"

Well, the way I wrote it is how it sounded to him. "Hey, take it easy, lady! I'm new at this, OK?" ... is what he wanted to say, but then, firstly, she had no reason to be mad, but then, also, she WASN'T mad about his mispronunciation at all. She was just trying to instruct him on the accenting of the 2nd syllable, which was the falling tone. We naturally interpret it as urgent or angry. It wasn't. It was just Chinese.

It's a great wall... I'm fine with that.

* Mandarin is just the standard Peking form, but all the dialects have this property.

** My Mom told me long ago about people speaking Chinese sounding like they were singing. This was in a time when China was still a deep dark mysterious place to almost all Americans, and I sure never thought I'd actually go there. (I'm pretty sure I'd never even met anyone FROM there at that time.)

Sunday - October 30th 2022 6:17AM MST
PS: Late reply, Mr. Ganderson. I was also thinking of "Stay with Me", as one of Rod's good songs. It's got almost the same sound as "It's all over Now" with that same fuzzy guitar. Neither of these would pass muster in today's #MeToo movement, I gotta say...

"In the morning, please don't say you love me,
cause you know I'll only kick you out that door ..."

I'll check out the Dead version of "All over Now". Thanks.
Thursday - October 27th 2022 4:21PM MST

It’s the Unidome, not the Unicode. I wouldn’t have typed “Unicode”. Grrr….
Thursday - October 27th 2022 11:27AM MST

Always thought “Maggie May” was bit… I’m not sure what, exactly. But hey, de gustibus non est disputantum. Love Mandolin Wind and Handbags and Glad-rags.

The Dead used to do It’s All Over Now ( the Stones, too) here’s a tasty version from Dick’s Picks vol 18, recorded mostly 2/3/78 at Dane County Coliseum in Madison, WI; and 2/5/78 at the Unicode, U of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA. This cut, though is taken from the middle show at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Didn’t see any of these shows, but did see em at the Uptown in Chicago in May an in the fall of that year.

Mr. Alarmist- the only way I’ll be observing Diwali is from a long way away!
Wednesday - October 26th 2022 4:50AM MST
PS: I was looking for the 2nd half of that meme, Alarmist. Something like "... you need to find a new line of work."

That was interesting stuff, Mr. Hail, especially about the imposing of tonal language on the Vietnamese, for example. If one portion of the population used tones, it'd be like speaking in code. Eventually, I guess, everyone wants in.
Wednesday - October 26th 2022 4:47AM MST
PS: Nah, unfortunately Shanghai Connie was like that, Mr. Ganderson. What a great song that one was - there's really no chorus to it, BTW, besides the one line at the end.

"It's all over now" is a great one. Other favorites of mine are "Maggie May", "Mandolin Wind", "You wear it well", "The first cut is the deepest", and "Handbags and Gladrags", which, closing the circle back to the latest PS post, is the theme song for the British - original - "The Office" show starring Ricky Gervais.

What I didn't mention on the Diwali post is that the first season of those burned/ripped DVDs I bought was the British version. I'd never heard of the show before period, so I was surprised to see different characters on the 2nd disk. I'm pretty sure the Chinese "manufacturer" had no idea - White ghosts in all the shows... excepting Stanley...

Tuesday - October 25th 2022 10:17PM MST

Mr Ganderson wrote: "Has there been any research into whether the Chinese, or any people who speak tonal languages, have better hearing?"

There is a claim out there that Cantonese deaf people have it harder than European-language-speaking deaf people, because hearing aids that work to get very-good results for (say) English don't work well at all for Cantonese-speakers who have gone deaf to get the tones.

This would seem to be a serious cultural disprivilege to the elderly, who, through no fault of their own, start to get some hearing loss and are relegated to the second-class linguistic zone of "tone non-understanders"!
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 10:06PM MST

On tones

"If you come across a web page that has something readable about (the evolution of tones in the languages of China), I'd really like to read it."

I wish I did have such an easy link. The relevant term to search for is "Tonogenesis." This is a term coined by a historical linguist back there somewhere, to describe the process by which a non-tone language gets tones.

It's a potentially interesting topic but there is a lot of muck to wade through, not user-friendly to most of us, except the Serious Linguists among the venerable Peak Stupidity readership.

It is similar to looking into the supposed history of a particular genetic y-chromosome male genetic line, or (much worse still) an mtdna maternal genetic line. There is conflicting information and it can be hard to follow and you don't know what to make of it.

The people highly interested enough to write/read/discuss heavy-duty historical linguistics or speculative genetic-line histories are so deep into it with a pre-existing knowledge base that their discourse ends up with an unhelpfully high barrier-to-entry, jargon and technical terms thick on the ground

An interesting addition to the puzzle: According to the linguist Laurent Sagart ("The origin of Chinese tones," 1999), the tones in the Vietnamese language only exist because of historical political domination by Sinic civilization, which somehow twisted the previous toneless proto-Vietnamese language into one with tones. An amazing feat, if true; more impressive than those languages that get snowed under with huge avalanches of loan-word nouns that they adapt from a prestige-culture or political-hegemon or quasi-colonial-power (today, usually English in all three cases). The surprise is that the other languages in the same language-family as Vietnamese, none of these other languages have developed tones. They were generally outside the realm of historical "Chinese" political control and contact; Vietnamese, under Chinese influence, developed tones--or had tones forced on them, I guess is the idea.

The evidence that a political hegemon imposed tones on a foreign tributary-state (Chinese onto Vietnamese) suggests the same happened within Chinese civilization itself, the "top-down tones" scenario I outlined in the earlier comment, which means there might be a number of centuries there where you had an elite using tones and the vast sea of peasantry generally not using tones, a language division similar maybe on scale, in terms of dividing classes, of literacy vs. illiteracy. tones would have been a mega-"shibboleth" among those people. Eventually, the non-tone speakers of Chinese languages faded out entirely because of the prestige advantage of tones (if this theory is right).

To add more interest of controversy: There also exists a school among Western linguists today who claim to have evidence that Chinese is right now in the process of losing its tones.
The Alarmist
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 3:24PM MST

@Moderator ... you might like this (h/t Bad Cat ... don’t know where he got it),q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/


The folks who wrote the autocorrect are insisting you now observe Diwali

Tuesday - October 25th 2022 12:38PM MST

“… nice turn”

I swear the people who wrote the autocorrect program have no knowledge of colloquial American English.
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 12:36PM MST

Did she claim that it just ain’t natural? How’s your neck?

Has there been any research into whether the Chinese, or any people who speak tonal languages, have better hearing? Not being a smart ass, just wondering.

Every Picture Tells a Story is one of my favorite Rod Stewart songs- along with Gasoline Alley and his version of It’s All Over Now. I like the old Rod Stewart.

Come to think of , nowadays Rod Stewart is the old Rod Stewart…

Mrs. Rod Stewart had a nice term in the Stacy’s Mom video…
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 8:43AM MST
PS: Mr. Blanc, I don't know if you meant little *red* books, or not, as it reads correctly either way. Mao little red book may have been little read also, what with the poverty and urgent need for toilet paper...
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 8:11AM MST
PS I only wish that China were still a deep dark mysterious place where they eat dogs and read little read books.
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 5:42AM MST
PS: Yeah, I didn't want to get too deep into it, Alarmist, but my China source who speaks some Cantonese told me it has more tones. Then, Vietnamese has a lot, and Cantonese to me sounds very close to Vietnamese. Some of the consonants, if one could call them that, sound like the speaker is about to lose his lunch.

As for the writing, I gave up ... after the characters for 1, 2, and 3!
Tuesday - October 25th 2022 5:39AM MST
PS: That's very interesting about the evolution of these tones in the language, Mr. Hail. If you come across a web page that has something readable about it, I'd really like to read it. (Yeah, I know I can search myself, but you seem already into it.)

Regarding the self-serving stretches of the truth, I'd always just heard and believed the "5,000 year old civilization" number for China. That was until John Derbyshire, who really knows his shit regarding China, wrote (I think to me in a comment) that it's more like 3,500 years. I guess everyone likes the round numbers, but that's indeed stretching it.
The Alarmist
Monday - October 24th 2022 10:02PM MST

The Chinese I learned during my assignment to Singspore was Cantonese. The first time I used it in the PRC, I got a bit of a smile/laugh from the old cabbie upon whom I inflicted it, because I clearly wasn't speaking official Chinese. Cantonese has nine tones, Mandarin five. As for the writing, Mandarin Pinyin is much easier ... a good feature when one's penmanship is already challenged.
Monday - October 24th 2022 8:44PM MST

There is some controversy about just when "tones" developed in the languages of Chinese civilization.

A strong view among the people who study these things, historical linguists, is that at the time Jesus preached in Galilee, the languages of Chinese civilization did not have a system of tones at all, at least nothing comparable to the current system. "Tones" in Chinese civilization, evidence suggests, evolved in the middle centuries of the first Christian millennium, but pinning it down more precisely is hard, and in any case it wasn't like a magic-wand thing that could happen in one day, year, or decade even.

Others prefer to push back the emergence of "tones" a good deal earlier. (If there's one thing you learn about dealing with East Asians, it's to be wary about the claims they make about themselves. They are not at all averse to self-serving stretches of the truth or weakly supported claims that make them look in the best possible light. It's nationalist-scholarship and might influence those arguing for much earlier dates to "tones".)

There must have been a long transition period, generations or even centuries long, when "tone" people were the prestige speakers and contrasted with less-educated regular people, peasants, and other less privileged, hinterlanders, and the various backwards-nobodies out there speaking non-toned Chinese languages, sounding like idiots to the "tone"-speaking elite. (Consider "the King's English" vs. the gruffest or supposedly least-pleasant of regional English dialects or accents.)
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