I recently read a blog entry in which the author mused that life must be a living hell for tone deaf Chinese. If the language is tonal, and tones play a crucial role in differentiating words, then tone deaf Chinese can’t understand what other people are saying, right? Right?
Well, no. It’s not that simple. Singing and speaking a tonal language are not the same thing. However often you might hear people speak of “the music of the language,” the two are not the same. I’m lucky this is the case, because I’m a terrible singer.
A USA Today article explains:
How can [a tone deaf Chinese person] tell the difference in speech between, say, [妈] and [马] with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?
Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context. But also, it’s easier to distinguish varying tones. Moreover, the tones we use in languages are coarse discriminators that even a disabled person can manage. To convey meaning differences, speech requires tone distinctions three to six times greater than melodies do for musical nuances.
(Pinyin News gets a little more analytical about it, if you’re interested.)
I was not surprised by this. I remember a while back when I first started studying Chinese, my dad posed this question to me: if Chinese is tonal, then can the Chinese understand each other when they whisper? This is actually a very good question. Whispers can’t carry tones. Trying “whispering to a melody.” You can’t.
This is because whispers lack what is called “fundamental frequency” (a physics term represented by f0), which is the basis for pitch. And that’s the aspect of normal spoken speech which carries tones.
So it would seem that my dad was dead on: it is physically impossible for whispers to carry tones. The thing is, you can whisper in Chinese, and it is understandable. But how does this work?
It turns out that when people whisper a tonal language such as Chinese, they naturally compensate for the lack of tones. How? According to one study:
the laryngeal sphincter mechanism is found to be a principal contributing physiological maneuver in the production of whisper, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal component of the laryngeal source;
two special behavioral maneuvers are also used in whisper: male speakers tend to lengthen vocalic duration and female speakers tend to exaggerate the amplitude contours of Tone 3 and Tone 4;
these two special behavioral maneuvers and two temporal envelope parameters contribute to tone recognition in whisper, but the phonetic context is shown to be a distraction;
the environments of the target tones cause perceptual differneces, and the ranking of these environments in order of increasing degree of difficulty is: isolation, sentence-final, sentence-medial and sentence-final;
the ranking of the four tones in isolation, in order of increasing degree of perceptual difficulty is: Tone 3, Tone 4, Tone 1 and Tone 2.
Source: Tones in Whispered Chinese: Articulatory Features and Perceptual Cues by Man Gao
Whew! OK, the basic idea is this: when people whisper, they naturally overcome the limitation of the medium by compensating in other ways. And they do it without even trying! I can even do it, and I’m pretty sure I never studied whispering tones. This is pretty cool.
So there you go, dad… it only took me about 6 years to find the answer to your question.