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  • It turns out that in some languages out there, people sing when they speak!

  • So how does that work?

  • When you think of the sounds that you put together to make a word, vowels and consonants

  • come to mind. And that's good. Usually. But to build words in tonal languages like

  • Hausa or Mandarin, you need another set of musical pieces called tones to make meaning.

  • Yes, these languages pay attention to higher and lower notes like a singer or a musician.

  • They don't do this by requiring their speakers to have perfect pitch and hit the same notes

  • as everyone else every time. Not everyone who speaks your language will be a mezzo-soprano

  • after all. So, if it's not about the specific notes, how do tonal languages use so many

  • tones? They pay attention to changes in pitch. A syllable sung higher (háá) can mean something

  • different than that same syllable sung lower (hàà). Linguistically, we would count those

  • as two different tones.

  • Whether you're high, or low, or just right in the middle, you're contrasting steady

  • notes. These different pitches are called register tones. In the Bantu languages of

  • Africa and Athabaskan languages like Navajo, the two basic register tones are a high tone

  • and a low tone.

  • Changes in pitch can get more dynamic, rising, falling, bouncing or staying level like they

  • do in Mandarin or Vietnamese. These tones are more about the shape of the tone, not

  • simply whether the note is higher or lower, so they're called contour tones. In Mandarin,

  • a syllable can be pronounced in four different contour tones. In Thai, there are

  • five contour tones.

  • Think you've mastered register versus contour tones? Well then, combine them! Mandarin may

  • have four contour tones, but look to the south to see how Cantonese distinguishes a low rising

  • tone from a medium rising tone. Oh, and it also has a high level tone, which is different

  • from a medium level tone and a low level tone. Add in the low falling tone, and you've

  • got six ways to sing a Cantonese syllable!

  • Notice that both register and contour tones aresungon vowels. Consonants have

  • your tongue blocking, smacking or pushing the airflow around, unlike the smooth, vibrating

  • air characteristic of vowels, which makes them the perfect environment for singsongy tones.

  • Tones are an extra feature that tonal languages use to build words - rising, level and falling

  • are as distinct as /p/, /t/ and /k/ - so speaking a word in a the wrong tone in one of these

  • languages can sound as bad as putting a /k/ where it doesn't belong. This makes tonality

  • a notoriously difficult feature to pick up for people coming from a non-tonal language

  • like English. (Much sympathy my friend!)

  • So keep your ears alert and practice, practice, practice.

  • Thanks again for learning with me and subscribe for language!

It turns out that in some languages out there, people sing when they speak!

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