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Re: [xmca] intonation and meaning
David and others interested,
A very interesting hypothesis in there about tonality and literacy
pulling in opposite directions. But that seems to somehow assume that
written language can ever functionally replace or supplant spoken
language? or does it just assume that the the former exerts a stronger
pull on the latter than vice versa?
You probably know that some time long ago in recorded Chinese history
some guy got the Emperor's Nobel Prize for making the "discovery" that
Mandarin was a tonal language. How could no one have noticed this
before? (At the time it was presumably not at all a new development.)
Was it perhaps the working back-and-forth, as a scholar might do,
between written (mostly literary) and spoken Chinese that highlighted
the phenomenon? Was this more likely in a lexigraphic script than an
alphabetic or syllabic one?
I've read that historically Chinese evolved towards having lexical
tone through the process of compressing formerly polysyllabic words
down to monosyllabic ones, creating more homonyms and leaving tonal
differences among them as the trace and legacy of their former longer
forms. This apparently went furthest in the classical literacy
language, where the written characters mostly disambiguated meaning,
tone or no tone. But that couldn't be carried through to the spoken
language (despite some admixture of finger signing to show the shape
of the written character, esp. for proper names), so it started to
climb back up to polysyllabic forms by pairing two monosyllables with
similar meaning to get something more uniquely distinguishable by
sound alone. And keeping their tones, but gradually shifting them to
something more pair-based.
Halliday's original work on Chinese was a study of The Secret History
of the Mongols, which reputedly is the earliest surviving substantial
written text to record the language of the (then) vernacular spoken
I don't know how this compares with the history of Korean. But it does
seem interesting to think both about how intonation over longer
stretches and over shorter ones (from sentences to syllables) interact
with and historically shift in relation to one another ... and about
the interplay in this process between written language (in different
kinds of scripts) and speech.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
On May 4, 2009, at 1:24 AM, David Kellogg wrote:
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
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.
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
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.
Seoul National University of Education
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