The Pitch of Speech in Two Chinese Villages

Languages such as English employ pitch to focus attention on particular words, to emphasize the grammatical structure of a phrase, and to convey emotional tone. In contrast, tone languages employ pitch (along with consonants and vowels) to convey the meaning of individual words. Just as changing the vowel of a monosyllabic word in English changes its meaning (for example, from ‘bit’ to ‘boat’) so in tone languages changing the pitch of the vowel can also change the meaning of the word. For example, the word ‘Ma’ in Mandarin means ‘mother’ when it is spoken in a high flat tone, ‘hemp’ when it is spoken in a mid-rising tone,  ‘horse’ in a low tone that descends and then ascends in pitch, and a reproach when spoken in a high, rapidly descending tone. The chart below shows four Mandarin words in each of four tones, together with their meanings. Click on the audio example below to hear the words in all four tones.

Play word 1 Play word 3
Play word 2 Play word 6
Play word 3 Play word 7
Play word 4 Play word 8
Play word 9 Play word 13
Play word 10 Play word 14
Play word 11 Play word 15
Play word 12 Play word 16