It’s time to break my ‘blog silence’ after our six-week stay in Nairobi, Kenya. We had gone there mainly to participate in a linguistic workshop on ‘tone’. Tone is one of the aspects of the world’s languages that many people (namely speakers of non-tonal languages like English) find mysterious. People often think tone is exotic, and students of language often say they are ‘tone deaf’. Both perceptions are myths. In fact, as many as 60-70% of the languages in the world are tonal. That means that non-tonal languages like American English are more exotic, if by ‘exotic’ we mean unusual. Moreover, if we were ‘deaf’ to ‘tone’ we wouldn’t be able to speak or understand English very well! Take the following example:
“You are going.”
“Who is going?”
“Me.” (or “Me!”)
In spoken language, the difference in the meaning of the two ‘me’s is made solely on the basis of tone, whereas in written language we indicate the meaning difference with our punctuation. Though this example shows that we aren’t deaf to tone, it doesn’t mean that English is a ‘tonal language’. Instead, linguists call languages like English ‘intonational’ languages. In the first instance of ‘me’ above, the word receives a rising interrogative pitch; in the second, it receives a low (or high) declarative pitch. The crucial point is that in both cases the word ‘me’ still means ‘me’. Though in this example, the intonation patterns of English apply to only one word (‘me’), they can also apply to longer strings of words.
The difference between an intonational language like English and tonal language like Ik is that English marks the nature or purpose of a whole sentence or phrase with pitch contrasts (like questions, statements, surprise, etc.), while Ik marks the meanings of individual words with contrast in voice pitch. For example, in Ik we find pairs like the following:
sé ‘white stone’
búdes ‘hide oneself’
budés ‘hide something’
Because the consonants and vowels are basically the same for each member of these pairs, the only way an Ik speaker can know what is meant is to listen to the tone contrast. So, unlike English, where consonants and vowels make up the sounds necessary for meaningful contrasts between individual words (e.g. between me and be), Ik uses consonants, vowels, and pitch (tone) to make meaningful contrasts. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that! We need to study the tone system of Ik because otherwise we’re only familiarizing ourselves with 66% of the sound system!