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Dirty little secret number two


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This has to do with the “starting point” of a sound. Everyone knows that a fourth tone goes down and that a second tone goes up. What is seldom discussed is where the second tone goes up *from* and where the fourth tone goes down *from*. There is no magic “neutral place” at which all tones begin; it can vary from syllable to syllable and contributes to how words are understood.

For example, think about 特别 in the sentence “我特别喜欢la la la.” It works best (by which I mean that it sounds most natural) if the first syllable starts with a pretty high pitch. I have a low voice and often don’t say it well because I start out too low.

Similarly, 朋友 seems to work out best if the leading second tone starts somewhere near the basement instead of commencing halfway to the attic when saying a sentence such as 她是我的朋友。

These are only personal observations and should not be taken as heavy-weight gospel. I could be full of beans, but my goal is just to get you thinking a bit beyond Pinyin if you have not already done so.

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I agree, tone is much more relative than introductory Chinese classes would lead a person to believe. When you jump to the highest pitch of your voice every time you encounter a first tone, you end up sounding very "pitchy" and unnatural. First tones, just have to be relatively higher than everything else around them.

I sometimes think of tone more like the syllabic stresses in English. If you put the emphasis in the wrong place for an English word, it can change the meaning of the word (i.e. from noun to verb). Or, it can make the word very difficult to understand, especially without proper context.

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I sometimes think of tone more like the syllabic stresses in English. If you put the emphasis in the wrong place for an English word, it can change the meaning of the word (i.e. from noun to verb). Or, it can make the word very difficult to understand, especially without proper context.

Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I had in mind.

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The linguist Zhao Yuanren used the (by me) oft-quoted metaphor that tones are like small waves riding on top of the bigger waves of phrase and sentence intonation. Another useful analogy is that the whole sentence is like a rubber band: "stress" means that in some place the band is stretched longer and wider. Individual tones are like small squiggles drawn over this elastic band: there are only four basic shapes, but endless variations due to the contortions in the underlying medium.

There are research papers that at least used to be available online, for example some by 沈炯 at Beijing University, that go into a lot of theoretical detail. But that's the basic idea.

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The linguist Zhao Yuanren used the (by me) oft-quoted metaphor that tones are like small waves riding on top of the bigger waves of phrase and sentence intonation. Another useful analogy is that the whole sentence is like a rubber band: "stress" means that in some place the band is stretched longer and wider. Individual tones are like small squiggles drawn over this elastic band: there are only four basic shapes, but endless variations due to the contortions in the underlying medium.

Ablsolutely beautiful.

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