Tone, tone, tone, tone

I’m going great guns with the Mandarin. This week I learned how to negotiate with a shopkeeper about the price of the goods I’m trying to buy. The scenario also encouraged me – very cannily – to switch from Chinese currency, rénmínbì, to US Dollars, méijīn, slap-bang in the middle of the negotiation, and then switch back again a few moments later. This seemed to confuse the lady behind the counter and I eventually convinced her to drop the price from 15 rénmínbì all the way down to 8! Being a CD, this was always going to happen, but I still felt a bizarre sense of achievement. Perhaps I need to get out more.

Anyway. If you’re familiar with Chinese, skip this bit. If you’re not, let me share with you the fabulous fact that the intonation you use when you pronounce a Chinese word forms an essential part of its meaning. What does that mean? Well, most Mandarin words are made up of an initial sound (usually a consonant, like ‘m’ or ‘p’) and a final (often a vowel or vowel-combo) sound. For example:

mao [cat]

The initial sound here is ‘m’, (which is pronounced similar to English ‘m’), and the final sound is ‘ao’ (which is pronounced to rhyme with the ‘ow’ of ‘cow’).

The really interesting thing is that Chinese words also have a tone. This tone is just as much a part of the meaning of the word as the initial sound and the final sound.

There are four tones in Mandarin:

  1. High (unwavering; sounds like the word is being sung on a high-ish note)
  2. Rising (a bit like when we ask a question in English: “You said what?!”)
  3. Falling-rising (a bit like the words ‘go on’ in this exchange: Jess: “ I opened the door and….” Alan: …”Go on…”)
  4. Falling: (like a very disappointed ‘Oh’).

I might try to record some of these so you can hear them. That’s by far the best way to get it. Anyway, the REALLY interesting thing is that the same ‘word’ (as we would understand it in English), but with a different tone, means something different. Yes!

You’d like an example? Ah, go on then. This one’s a teaser. Take the word ‘ma’, which is pronounced much like the first part of the word ‘marmalade’ (although if you’re from North America or some of the southern counties of the UK, please note that we need a silent ‘r’ please). ‘Ma’ pronounced with a rising tone means something different than ‘ma’ pronounced with a falling tone, or a high tone, or a falling-rising tone. The four variations of the word ‘ma’ mean (amongst other things) four completely different animals:

  • [high] – dragonfly
  • [rising] – toad
  • [falling-rising] – horse
  • [falling] – grasshopper

Isn’t that amazing?

To be clear – when these words are written down, they all look different. The characters are easily distinguishable. So it’s not the case, as my boyfriend commented, that the Chinese ‘haven’t got enough words’. (They just ‘haven’t got enough sounds’. Kidding. :o)

Going back to our word for ‘cat’, we also need to make sure we use the right tone, otherwise we might find ourselves accidentally saying ‘feather’ or ‘riveting’ or ‘trade and commerce’ instead. And the correct tone is…. (drumroll…) high! So the correct pronounciation of ‘cat’ is ‘māo’.

The fun comes in learning to produce these tones correctly when you speak. In English we certainly use tone, but we use it to express things like emotion (“Oh pleeeeeeeaaaase!”), questioning (“Why did you do that?”) and emphasis (“Why did you do that?” “Why did you do that?”) It can be really hard to keep the questioning ‘up-ness’ out of your voice at the end of a Mandarin question sentence, because it’s so deeply ingrained. Not impossible though! Zipping along the road to work, proudly producing tones as clearly as I could, and thinking that I was sounding very tuneful, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder – what happens when Chinese actually people sing? What happens to the tones?

It turns out (according to general consensus, based on the small amount of research I’ve done) that singers drop the tones completely, and the melody takes over. Certainly that’s the case with Mandarin. And although context is often enough, sometimes it means that listeners can’t work out exactly what the lyrics are for a song until they see them written down.

I’ve found some suggestions that Cantonese actually tries harder to maintain relative tones within the tune, for example here:

If you’re feeling EVEN more engaged than me, there’s also a PhD paper about it here:

(Just so you know – it’s 168 pages long. You might like to pop some music on while you’re reading.)