Don't be afraid of tones

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So says Stuart Jay Raj, a Thai-based Australian polyglot who speaks several tonal languages.  Here is a half-hour video by him which is linguistics heavy, but is actually an effort to simplify and systematize how tones work.  For example, Raj makes a sharp distinction between pitch and tone, something that many people get all mixed up about.  Not to mention intonation, which we have often discussed on Language Log.

In this episode, Raj focuses on Burmese, but in other presentations he focuses on different tonal languages and on general principles.

It's long and technical, but if you're truly interested in tones and tonal languages, I would urge you to have a good look and listen to what Stuart Jay Raj has to say about them.  He knows his stuff, so even if you're not specifically interested in mastering tones and tonal language, but are simply interested in the phonological and phonetic principles behind them, you might well learn something useful from this presentation.  For example, he has ideas about how creaky voice interacts with the production of tones.

Give it a try, and let us know what you think.

Several things about Raj's presentation that I find phenomenal:  the accuracy of his tones, the precision of his pronunciation, his advanced ability to draw characters and a wide variety of symbols spontaneously on a screen, presumably with a stylus, and so forth.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Ronan Maye]


  1. Chris Button said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 10:44 pm

    I skipped to the Burmese part. I'll have to let others comment on the accuracy of his pronunciation, but I would like to correct his association of the creaky tone and the high pitch tone with Chinese "shang sheng" and "qu sheng" respectively. In fact, the inverse is the case.

    To be fair, several respected academics have made that miscorrelation in the past too. However, it is debunked by an analysis of how tones actually compare across words in Chinese and Burmese and by a closer analysis of the orthographic evidence from Inscriptional Burmese. The cross-linguistic comparisons by Alfons Weidert and the orthographic analyses by Sawada Hideo are helpful in that regard.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:00 pm

    Somewhat informative wrt the origins of lexical tone and certain connections across the languages of the region. The advice to "forget about pitches and numbers of tones…" is however not on point if your goal is to learn some specific tonal language: of course relative pitch height/contour (among other features) are crucial. Actually, the problem can often be paying *too much* attention to historical connections and not enough to synchronic facts — e.g., in Taiwanese, -p/-k/-t/-ʔ syllables are treated equivalently in most descriptions as belonging to so-called "Tone 4" or "Tone 8", but -ʔ syllables differ from -p/-k/-t ones where contour, etc., are concerned; learners would be better off regarding "Tone 4" + -ʔ as a subset of "Tone 3"… etc.

  3. Daniel Tse said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:11 pm

    His stroke order for the character 聲 at 2:30 is truly chaotic.

  4. AntC said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 8:32 am

    Around 3:30 – 4:30 “it’s all about the mechanics of the mouth”.

    I’m not listening with my mouth. Indeed do I need to know what shēng means to be able to produce and recognise phonemic distinctions?

    At 7:20 “we use a question mark in IPA to represent glottal stop.” And he indeed puts a dot under what should be ʔ . Who does Stuart think is his intended audience/level of prior knowledge?

    I’m really finding that attempting to mash together 5 or 6 tonal languages (Cantonese as well as Mandarin, also ‘Taiwanese’ by which I assume he means Hokkien), plus the historical origins of tones as curtailed suffixes has left me entirely baffled.

    It’s not just the stroke order that’s chaotic. Perhaps if I was already secure in knowledge of at least one tonal language, I could fit this in and expand my understanding. As it is, it’s leaving me more confused.

    (And chiefly what I can hear is Australian diphthongs.)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 9:54 am

    Before AntC weighed in, I was already thinking of making the following observation:


    Something unusual I noticed when he was demonstrating the physicality of phonetic production, namely, instead of pointing to his mouth (which he does occasionally), Raj more often grasps or touches his throat / neck.


    I don't know his academic background, but I get the feeling that he is pretty much of an autodidact. He knows the technical vocabulary and issues, but he might well have picked that up mostly from self-study. As for his analysis and synthesis, he seems to have figured it out primarily by himself, which would account for its unconventional nature (as pointed out in the above comments).

    In any event, what I see in this video are the results of an intense, enthusiastic process of self-observation and self-discovery. It's refreshing and contributes something new to the mix of phonological studies of tonal languages, so long as the critics are here to rein him in and question some of his basic premises when necessary.

  6. AntC said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 7:27 pm

    I get the feeling that he is pretty much of an autodidact.

    I think Victor is on to it! These are more like ad hoc aides memoires than a structured approach. _is_ there any useful sense in which these languages' tones are alike? (Vide myl's parallel thread 'like this one'.)

    I'm currently travelling in Taiwan, so hearing Mandarin of course. Yesterday I was in a Vietnamese noodle shop. The 'music' of the language was almost totally unlike Mandarin: much more 'sing-song' with the tone differences easily ranging a couple of octaves.

  7. Chris Button said,

    January 13, 2024 @ 6:13 am

    Many of the language tables in volume 2 of Gordon Luce's "Phases of Pre-Pagan Burma" are arranged according to three "tone categories" that ultimately correlate with Chinese ping, shang and qu (although I think his layout is ping, qu, shang)

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