Friday, 29 February 2008

Tonal Languages

Chinese (at least Mandarin, the most common dialect) is a tonal language. That is the the difference between a rising and a falling tone completely changes the meaning of a word. So for example, a sharp "shh" sound means "is" - if the tone is falling (like a steam locomotive on a gradient). On the other hand it can mean "poem" if the tone is level (like shushing a child whispering during a film). If the tone rises it means "ten".

English on the other hand is not tonal - or is it? The meaning of the word "Really" for example changes radically with the tone. With a falling tone it conveys scepticism or unbelief. A rising tone conveys interest or surprise.