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Tone & Intonation

Tones are not the same thing as "intonation."

Tones: The tones of tonal languages are pitch patterns limited to individual syllables or words or relative pitch differences between one syllable/word and the next. In Chinese tones are just as important as consonants or vowels in distinguishing one word from another.

In Chinese, as in most other "tonal languages," there is a small number of tone categories, just as there is a fixed, usually small number of vowels or consonants. The underlying, cross-dialectical logic of Chinese tone seems to involve eight such tone categories, many of which are (differently) merged in various dialects. Mandarin exhibits four tones (plus tone neutralization). Hokkien exhibits seven tones. Cantonese has from six to nine tones, depending upon the dialect.

Because tones are categories contrasting with each other, the actual sounds which correspond to them may vary from speaker to speaker, micro-dialect to micro-dialect, or style to style, so long as the contrasts remain intact.

Intonation: Intonation, in contrast, refers to pitch patterning imposed upon an utterance in order to express something other than differentiating words. Intonation responds to emotion, levels of politeness, and so on, or addresses such syntactic functions as showing a question. These functions are so important to most speech that in some everyday contexts the consonants and vowels can be largely lost and the intonation alone can carry the whole message. (That is probably the origin of the famous teenagers' mumbling and grunting that so annoys non-teenagers.) Unlike tones, intonation is found in all spoken languages.

Intonation is rarely directly taught in language classes, since most people consider it "natural" but there is of course variation from language to language, and differences in intonation can be responsible for a second-language speaker sounding unintentionally "abrupt," "polite," "uncertain" and so on. (For example, in American English "Hello, David" usually comes out with a loud Hello and a quiet David. In Mexican Spanish both words of Hola, David are equally loud or the David part is slightly louder.)

Interactions: In tonal languages tone and intonation, since both involve pitch, obviously interact. That is part of the reason why students in beginning Chinese classes find that they can hear or copy their teachers' tones clearly in individual words, but not in whole sentences. In musical lyrics, tone and intonation are both overriden by the melodic line, complicating understanding, often even for native speakers.



Content Revised: 2012-09-01
Software Last Modified: 2020-06-13
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