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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 language.

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.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
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 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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