Tone Changes in Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Language — How Language Changes - Sound Change

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

As language evolves, it does so with changes in sound. A lot of changes in sound come from changes in vowels and consonants that make up the language. But another significant aspect of sound change is changing intones. There are several languages that exist in the world where, when you pronounce a syllable in a particular pitch, it brings about complete differences in meaning.

Stylized image of Dictionary meaning of the words "tone" and "tongue".
While consonants and vowels are major components of sound change in language, there are languages where tonal changes heavily impact the language as well.
(Image: TungCheung/Shutterstock)

 The concept of meanings being embedded in tones is not just restricted to Chinese, as is commonly believed. It is rather frequent in many languages worldwide. For instance, this is particularly regular in languages existing all over Africa. It also exists in languages prevalent in the east and southeast Asia, as well as in Native American languages of Mexico.

Just as the use of prefixes and suffixes are crucial to language for English speakers, tone plays an imperative role in other languages.

The Various Tones of ‘Ma’

In Chinese, especially in Mandarin Chinese, there exists a word, ‘ma’. If you come to assess it from the perspective of a native English-speaking person, ‘ma’ is just like any other word. We would, perhaps, add an ‘s’ to the end of it, and we get the plural form of ‘ma’, that is ‘mas’. In the Chinese language, however,  there is no system of plural endings. In general, the Chinese language isn’t about endings and prefixes. It’s all about tone. To add meaning to ‘ma’, this language employs different tones. For instance, if you have a high tone on ‘ma’, something like ‘má’ means ‘hemp’. However, if it is pronounced in a low tone, ‘mà’, it would come to mean ‘scold’. Further, if you speak it in a tone that makes a kind of a swoop, something like ‘mă’, it would mean a ‘horse’ and if it’s a completely different tone, ‘mā’, then that would mean ‘mother’. So, the syllable can mean all of those things based solely on the tone in which it is uttered. For most Western speakers, it is indeed a surprise to watch and listen to Chinese people, who use the same word with interchangeable tones and convey a different meaning every time, and they seem to do it quite effortlessly, too. For them it’s very natural, as this is the language system they are born into and have been practicing since their first exposure to any communication. There exists this kind of four-level difference in Chinese that is gentle as the tone goes. However, in Cantonese there are six. Though some people maintain that Cantonese has nine tones, it’s considered by a few to be a little forced. A more conservative view would still agree to the existence of six tones in Cantonese. 

To quote an example, the word ‘fan’ can mean ‘share’, ‘powder’, ‘advise’, ‘divide’, ‘excited’, or ‘grave’, all depending on the tone in which the word is pronounced. That’s precisely what the Chinese people are also doing when they talk. 

Having said that, one cannot presume to be ethnocentric and assume that  European languages are more ‘normal’ and user-friendly, despite the fact that discerning the various meanings of the word ‘ma’ will, most of the time, pose a significant challenge to most non – Chinese speakers. The truth is, the usage of tones to signify meaning is not something that was there as soon as language was created; on scrutinizing these intonations carefully, linguists have actually been able to see how they use of tones in languages is just as much a result of natural evolution as the creation of ‘mature’ from the Latin, ‘maturos’.

Learn more about whether culture drives language change.

The Birth of Tone Changes in Language

To understand how different tones came to signify different meanings of the same word, one has to study the evolution from when these differences did not exist. 

Understanding this becomes easier with the example of an imaginary language, with an imaginary set of words. Consider three words in a language that do not have this kind of tone: ‘pā’, ‘pák’, and ‘pàs’, The one thing common to all these three is the presence of the word ‘pa’, Now, if one says ‘pák’, there’s a tendency for that vowel to rise slightly in pitch, especially in comparison to when we say ‘pàs’. Looking at ‘pā’, ‘pák’, and ‘pàs’, we would assume the difference to be in the ending consonant, i.e. we would hear the k and the s at the end and the first one with nothing at the end. For us, that’s the difference between the three. Now, imagine that ‘pā’ means ‘mantelpiece’, ‘pák’ means ‘camera’ and ‘pàs’ means ‘radio’ or something nearly like that, these are then different words. At the same time, there’s also the slight tonal difference between the three created by virtue of their last consonants. 

By this time, although the tones are not part of the language, the consonants maintain their tendency to weaken over time. In the case of ‘pā’, ‘pák’, and ‘pàs’, the weakening of the last consonants of each word will result in ‘pā’, ‘pá’ and ‘pà’ being the end result. 

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Existence of Different Tones in Everyday Life

This drop of consonants is very gradual. Usually, in a society, it is the younger people most receptive to change. So, it is them who leave the consonants off most of the time, as compared to the older people, who would do this a little less.

Interestingly, there are many languages in the world where this aspect of language exists. We have languages with three, seven and even at times, nine tones.

Even more interesting is the fact that in many such languages, most words are only one syllable long. Therefore, the need to use varied tones to express meaning arises, because not using tones would create the need for a lot of words in order to create lengthy, complete, and meaningful sentences.

At the time when these changes are gradually making their way into language systems, they are not accepted whole-heartedly. People tend to think that they have an accent, if, for instance, someone in Philadelphia says ‘bay-id’ instead of ‘bad’. In other words, the vast number of social evaluations that exist, almost always in society, have the potential to act as barriers to these changes. It is, therefore, imperative to realize that changes are not examples of decay in language, but rather, the stepping stones toward the evolution of new languages, and perhaps, newer cultures. 

Learn More About How Language Changes.

Commonly Asked Questions about Tone Changes

Q: Why are tone changes important in sound change?

While changes through consonants and vowels are commonly recognized as agents of sound change, in many languages, tone changes emerge as proponents of change.

Q: How many levels of tone changes do Cantonese have?

Even though some linguists argue that there are as many as nine degrees of tone changes in Cantonese, even conservative measures indicate that there are, in fact, six degrees.

Q: How do tone changes come into being?

Even though no languages begin with tone changes that signify meanings, over time, when consonants force certain similar words to develop intonation, and the consonants themselves get dropped, the intonations begin to develop degrees of meaning.

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