Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chinese Without Tone?

("please, wait a moment", image from

Vivian Aldridge has a nice website devoted to explaining braille systems for different languages (HT Boing Boing). If I understand correctly, tone is rarely represented for Chinese braille (let's forgive for the moment that "Chinese" is the name of a language family, not a particular language):

In the few examples of Chinese braille that I have come across, the signs for the tones were not used except in the following cases:
  • with the syllable yi, for which a good Chinese-German dictionary lists almost 50 different inkprint characters. In this case the indication of the tone helps to limit the number of possible meanings. 
  • in words where a syllable with a suppressed vowel comes before syllable without a consonant, for example the word sh'yong (try out, test) in which the braille sign for the fourth tone is used instead of the apostrope. In this case the tone sign seems to be used to separate the two syllables.
Tone is a non-trivial feature of Chinese languages. Omniglot has a nice page with the system displayed (fyi, it cites as one of its sources). The interesting point is that tone has the ability to be represented, but according to Vivian, it normally is not (however, she notes that she has only seen a few examples). I spent two years in college struggling in Mandarin courses. I would have liked to have dispensed with tone.


uzza said...

what's wrong with tones? I kinda like em.

Chris said...

Oh, nothing wrong with tone, I just suck at producing lexical tone on cue. Classic American. I was okay at recognizing them, but horrible at producing them. Inevitably, while trying to produce rising tone, I sounded like a clown, wildly over-articulating.

enchanting_catalyst said...

A friend of mine who is a native Mandarin speaker says that tone is more important with more highly complex vocabulary. Perhaps the commonness of the usual messages transmitted by braille, like those for the sighted on signs, preclude the need for tone? (Except in a few notable cases, like the one you provided.)

As for dispensing with tone... he says foreigners with very small vocabularies are pretty easily understood if they can't produce tone, but it's important for more advanced levels... sorry! ^_^

Chris said...

enchanting_catalyst, thanks for the comments. And yes, sigh, I know I will have to practice that pesky 4th tone more.

FYI, there is also the challenging fact of downdrift, where the actual pitch of the tone gets lower because of the context.

Then there's the scary phenomenon where a word that is normally, say, 3rd tone, gets changed to say 2nd tone because two 3rd tone words preceded it (we can't have three tone 3s in a row, now can we).

Ahhh, the linguistics of tone. A great (and messy) topic.