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Re: Chinese tone and pitch

At 10:10 AM +0800 5/10/01, lonce wyse wrote:
Hi -

    Chinese is a tonal language, but it is *possible* to understand
Chinese without the pitch information:

1) Chinese speakers whisper, too! (However, there are formant changes
correlated with pitch in speech)
Also, at least for Mandarin Chinese each tone is associated with a
distinct amplitude contour. I don't speak Mandarin, but I have been
analyzing some Mandarin stimuli and can usually tell the tone of a
token just from the amplitude waveform (without listening). Such
non-F0 cues might help with understanding whispered speech.

See Whalen & Xu (1992) [Information for Mandarin tones in the
amplitude contour and in brief segments, Phonetica, 49, 25-47]

Note, however, that Whalen & Xu cite a paper by Arthur Abramson that
apparently suggests that "tones tend not to be recovered well in
whispered speech." But I know Cantonese speakers can understand
whispered Cantonese, because my students can whisper to one another
quite fluently during class! Furthermore, in my experience, there
seems to be much less correlation between amplitude envelopes and
tones in Cantonese (which also has more distinct tones than
Mandarin). But I don't know of any published research on this topic.

Perhaps semantic/pragmatic/contextual considerations play a stronger
role than non-F0 acoustic cues in understanding whispered Cantonese.

2) Chinese songs are almost completely devoid of the lexical tonal
information. (However, songs are special in their use of language -
especially regarding redundancy)
This is not entirely true, at least for Cantonese. See Wong & Diehl's
1999 abstract in JASA: Melody-tone relation in Cantonese songs.
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 106, 2286(A).

3) Tones are often sacrificed  in natural speech (albeit using pragmatic
and contextual "rules")
I'm not sure what you mean by "sacrificed" -- there is certainly a
great deal of contextually determined variation (some of it
phonological, a great deal more of it phonetic/physiological). But
that doesn't mean that the "correct" tone isn't recoverable by
listeners. And the amount of phonologically conditioned tone change
depends in part on the dialect. Mandarin has a lot more phonological
tone sandhi than Cantonese.

4) Monotone computer speech synthesis is also understandable - by both
humans and machines - due to joint word frequency statistics as well as
semantic context.
In normal (not-monotone) Cantonese this kind of information is also
probably quite important because there seem to be quite a few
homophones (including same tone). But I would guess there's at least
as much homophony in Mandarin, given fewer tones and a more
phonotactically limited syllable structure.

Aren't there any native Chinese speakers who want to "pitch in" here? I
would be interested to know if deaf-from-birth people learn to speak
with tones at all.

             - lonce

p.s. Related topic: I believe Bruno Repp (among others) found that pitch
in Chinese is processed in areas of the brain associated with language
rather than with music.
There's an early paper by Van Lancker & Fromkin that, if I remember
correctly, shows a right-ear advantage (left-hemisphere advantage)
for right-handed native speakers of a tone language (Thai?)
discriminating syllables with different pitch patterns, while
right-handed native speakers of English show no ear advantage. This
is interpreted as suggesting that Thai speakers process spoken pitch
preferentially in the hemisphere dominant for language, while English
speakers do not (and may process pitch preferentially in the right
hemisphere, with music and emotional aspects of speech like "tone of
voice," etc.). More recent imaging work by Gandour and his colleagues
seems to support this hypothesis. And I'm sure there's been other
imaging work on this topic (by Zatorre?)


Alexander L. Francis     
Post-doctoral Fellow                            afrancis@hkusua.hku.hk
Dept. of Speech and Hearing Sciences              Tel. (852) 2859-0561
The University of Hong Kong                       Fax. (852) 2559-0060
Prince Philip Dental Hospital
34 Hospital Road
Hong Kong