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Re: [xmca] intonation and meaning

Since Jay has done us all the favor of bringing up this topic and gracing it with a new subject line, I would like to put the following rather Hallidayan pigeon before the linguist cats out there on the list: 

Why is English NOT a tonal language...or is it?

Halliday likes to analyze English as a mutant form of Chinese (rather than, as most western-trained Chinese linguists do, analyzing Chinese as a messy kind of English). That is why when we look at his categories of textual meaning we see that they really boil down to the topic-comment structures of Chinese (and Korean).

When people say that Chinese is lexically tonal, that is, tonality is part of lexical meaning in Chinese, they are really saying that it is part of semantic meaning (znachenie) as opposed to pragmatic meaning (smysl, although Volosinov's term is "tema"). 

That is to say, if you keep everything else constant but you change a syllable from a (relatively) high constant tone or a falling tone you change the dictionary definition of the syllable, as if you changed the short vowel "i" in "bill" to a long vowel "ai" in "bile".

Just as semantic meaning is a kind of cultural-historical coagulation of a critical mass of pragmatic meanings (occurring sometime in the eighteenth century, with the standardization of spellings and Johnson's dictionary), lexical intonation (stress and eventually tonality) is a kind of coagulation of utterance level intonation. 

You can see this happening in English, of course. We all know, for example, the difference between "REcord" and "reCORD", and we know the "in-between" examples like "finance", which can go either way. But compare:

1.1 I thought you'd REMEMBER me!
1.2 I THOUGHT you'd remember me!

You can see that the difference in lexical stress produces a complete difference in pragmatic meaning (in fact, in polarity; in one case it is POSITIVE for remember and in the other NEGATIVE).

Now, you can argue that this is at the level of utterance and not at the level of word. But what about this? 

2.1 Sorry? (What did you say?)
2.2 Sorry! (I didn't know that was your foot.)

So will English ever become lexically tonal? If so, it has a long way to go, and there are certainly powerful forces pulling the other way, distributing lexical tonality across utterances and pragmatic meanings rather than concentrating them in words and znachenie (Say what?).

Korean was a completely tonal language in the fourteenth century but only remnants of that tonality remain today in the form of slightly lengthened vowels for homophones (rather like "bill" and "bile") and an exaggerated Kyeongsangdo regional dialect which is used for cheap laughs on late night comedy shows.

It's tempting to ascribe developments like this to Western influence. Such things do happen. Volosinov rather foolishly remarks that languages like Korean are evolving towards a European model, whereby deference and respect are merely matters of style rather than being grammatically encoded.

In fact, Korean is a much older language than English, and more differentiated and developed in many ways including this one; it would be much truer to say that English is evolving towards an Asian model but I think that the centripetal forces at work on English will tear it apart before it gets there.

I think the real reason that Korean lost its tonality (and the real reason why English will never acquire it) is because of literacy. In the fourteenth century a very strictly phonetic alphabet was designed which made tonality redundant. English is not really an international language (it remains much less widely spoken than Chinese for example), as an international language for RICH people, it's really only an international literacy. For this reason I doubt if it will ever really become tonal.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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