The musicality of Changsha tones

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With approximately six million native speakers centered on the capital of Hunan, the province just to the south of Hubei, where the novel coronavirus has been raging for the past three months and more, Changsha topolect (Chángshā huà 長沙話) is a significant form of Sinitic:

Changsha dialect (simplified Chinese: 长沙话; traditional Chinese: 長沙話; pinyin: Chángshā-huà; Xiang: tsã˩˧ sɔ˧ ɣo˨˩) is a dialect of New Xiang Chinese. It is spoken predominantly in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. It is not mutually intelligible* with Standard Mandarin, the official language of China.

(source)

[*VHM:  I like the way they put that — "not mutually intelligible".]

I don't know if the tones of Changsha topolect are innately more musical than those of other Sinitic topolects, or indeed of varieties of speech in non-Sinitic language groups, but it seems to be a thing to represent them musically.

Here are two videos showing people having fun teaching Changsha tones with notes on the piano keyboard.  Sorry, no transcriptions and no translations — they're just talking about mundane terms such as "louse", "blindman", " con-man", "socks", "hot pepper" (very suitable for Hunan!), etc.  Just focus on the music and the tones.

Weibo

bilibili

For the second one, if you wait for a few seconds after one lesson concludes, it will automatically go on to the next lesson.

[h.t. Diana Shuheng Zhang and Fangyi Cheng]



13 Comments »

  1. Michael Watts said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    I have nothing to say about Changsha tones, but I do note that spoken Mandarin doesn't strike me as musical, Mandarin speakers speaking English don't strike me as musical — but Indians speaking English frequently do strike me as musical. It's something I'd like to know more about.

  2. Jonathan said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 10:45 am

    @Michael Watts – Among the Scandinavian languages I've heard that Swedish is noted for being musical. I similarly don't know what that means exactly, but would love to hear more about it – especially from any Danes or Norwegians!

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 11:36 am

    In my experience, a significant factor in Language L being labelled "musical" or "singsong" is that the coordination of pitch changes with syllables is different from what it is in the language of the person doing the labelling. Indian English differs from many other varieties of English in the fact that the pitch rise-falls that accompany stressed syllables are substantially later relative to the syllable – the stressed vowel is mostly low and the rise and fall mostly span the following unstressed syllable. Something similar is true of Welsh English, which is why British speakers tend to say that Indian accents sound like Welsh accents.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 3:46 pm

    a significant factor in Language L being labelled "musical" or "singsong" is that the coordination of pitch changes with syllables is different from what it is in the language of the person doing the labelling.

    This is fully symmetric — do Indians find American English especially musical? Do Swedes find Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders musical?

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 5:33 pm

    @Michael Watts:
    Good point. Short answer is, I don't know, but I expect your implicit suggestion that it actually isn't symmetrical is correct. Further research is needed.

  6. Chris Button said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 8:37 pm

    Among the Scandinavian languages I've heard that Swedish is noted for being musical.

    Well Norwegian and Swedish are both pitch-accent languages.

    In my experience, a significant factor in Language L being labelled "musical" or "singsong" is that the coordination of pitch changes with syllables is different from what it is in the language of the person doing the labelling. Indian English differs from many other varieties of English in the fact that the pitch rise-falls that accompany stressed syllables are substantially later relative to the syllable – the stressed vowel is mostly low and the rise and fall mostly span the following unstressed syllable. Something similar is true of Welsh English, which is why British speakers tend to say that Indian accents sound like Welsh accents.

    I remember "Bombay Welsh", as it apparently used to be called, came up a while back elsewhere on LLog.

    I would suggest that in terms of perception, it might be as much to do with the different tones as the placement per se.

    To take the example of Welsh English, I've always liked J. C. Wells' comment in his Accents of English book that a rise-fall might be used in Welsh where in many other varieties of English a fall might be used. He uses the example of /\val.id (where \val.id might be expected) to suggest that it gives an impression of prominence to the second syllable id even though it's not the intonation nucleus.

    I wonder now if that might be compared to the implicational fall-rise tone in something like "Well I don't really like tennis, but I do like badminton" where \/tenn.is has the fall on the nucleus tenn but the rise back up on the is. That contrasts with a basic statement like "I like tennis" where \tenn.is falls on tenn but is then flat for the remaining is.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 1:39 am

    Michael Watts wrote: Do Swedes find Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders musical?

    Not particularly. We do tend to find that Norwegian sounds very upbeat, though. There's even a old joke that amounts to that saying "I'm depressed" in a Norwegian accent is incongruous.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 4:06 am

    @Chris Button:
    Actually, the description I gave in terms of "the coordination of pitch movements with syllables" and Wells's description of a "rise-fall" instead of a "fall" are probably two different ways of describing the same set of phonetic facts. Wells's description is couched in terms of the traditional British approach to intonation, which identified a small number of categorically distinct "nuclear tones" anchored to the main stressed syllable. But breaking down the pitch contour into syllable-sized phonetic chunks is probably the wrong way to look at things. This insight was a key contribution of Gösta Bruce's work on the Swedish pitch accent distinction in the 1970s and 1980s – generations of phoneticians had tried to describe the distinction in terms of the contour shape on the accented syllable, whereas Bruce showed that the contour shape of the accent, abstracted away from syllables, is more or less the same in all cases, and what differs is the way that shape lines up with the syllables. In the same way, the difference between a "nuclear fall" and a "nuclear rise-fall" in English is almost certainly better described in terms of how the rising-falling contour is aligned with the syllables.

  9. Chris Button said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 7:23 am

    @ Bob Ladd

    Thanks–I see now that what you're saying is not so different. However, Wells' description talks of the change in contour (not simply pitch which can change elsewhere) beginning on the accented syllable and then continuing across the syllable as appropriate. So it's not that it fits squarely on the accented syllable, but rather that it just begins there. At least, that is how he later describes such things. Granted, his Accents of English work is very old now and perhaps it was not meant in such terms then, but it's still applicable. In any case, how is his current approach so different from what you're describing? I haven't read Gösta & Bruce's work on the Swedish pitch accent.

  10. Chris Button said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 7:40 am

    Sorry, for "continuing across the syllable as aopropriate" please read "continuing across the word as appropriate"

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 11:32 am

    @Chris Button:
    The main difference is that you're distinguishing a "change in contour" and a "change in pitch", whereas I don't see any way to distinguish those. Pitch is always changing (phonetically), and the only basis for saying that the contour "begins on the accented syllable" is phonological or functional. I talked about this at a symposium for Gösta Bruce's 60th birthday, and posted the text of the talk after Gösta's untimely death at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~bob/TALKS/bruce60.pdf . That might give you a clearer idea of what I'm getting at without involving everyone who reads Language Log.

  12. Chris Button said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 3:22 pm

    @ Bob Ladd

    Thanks, I'll check it out.

    As for pitch versus tone, I'd say that phonologically pitch is relative while contour is independent, regardless of any other phonetic coloring or surface fluctuations (i.e., phonetically, it's never going to be a simple low pitch vs. high pitch contrast, but it works for phonological description). So pitch may be higher or lower when compared with the syllables surrounding it, while contour may fall or rise regardless of its starting pitch or the pitch of the syllables surrounding it.

  13. Chris Button said,

    March 28, 2020 @ 6:05 am

    So Wells has a comparison of his system with ToBI (i.e., combinations of high and low pitch as opposed to syllable-defined combinations of pitches and contours) at the back of his "English Intonation" book. In his example in English, I don't see anything extra that ToBI is capturing in terms of phonetic realization.

    It would be interesting to see if ToBI can handle the interplay of intonational tone with lexical tone in languages that have both pitch and contour as clear tonemic distinctions.

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