Watch Your Tone!

Chinese is a tonal language…what does that mean?

It means that the tone is part of the word, just like which syllable you accent or how you pronounce read (present tense) versus read (past tense). In Chinese it is more extreme than read vs read; the word “ma” can mean mother, hemp, horse, scold or act as a verbal question mark, depending on tone.

In English we use tone primarily to add an element of attitude or emotion to the meaning of the sentence, for example a rising tone makes the sentence questioning (our question mark indicates that a sentence should be read with a rising tone) or a falling tone can indicate that you really mean it. The tones add the same element of meaning regardless of what the words are.

As a lifelong speaker of English I am finding it challenging to switch the way I use tones.  For example, I really want to ask questions with a rising tone. I tend to say “You speak English hemp” instead of “You speak English?”

Being the wish-washy sort I find the falling tone, which is explained as “how you say ‘no’ when you really mean it” hostile sounding, and it seems strange to use it in phrases that are cordial, like “thank you”. I tend to tone it down, which means I mispronounce “thank you” (even though I really mean it!)

When we say “watch your tone!” in English it is an admonition to pay mind to your attitude, to be respectful. In Chinese it would mean something closer to “be careful and precise to make your meaning clear”.


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