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Re: AP in all of us? New evidence from speech research
I heard the call for native Chinese speakers to "pitch in", so I
almost felt compelled to say something on this matter.
Yes, Chinese speakers whisper, too. And we can still make the four
tones while whispering, though I haven't figured out why yet. Since
about one third of the words are synophones, it is quintessential to
distinguish the four tones to understand the meaning. There are
enough anecdotes how foreigners got the tones wrong, and of course,
the wrong reaction from the Chinese counterpart.
When we speak, it is important to hold the initial pitch as a
reference, so the four tones would be based on initial pitch. I also
heard that Japanese has some 21+ address forms, especially for women.
When Japanese women address someone more senior, say the
father-in-law, they intentionally raise their pitch to show their
respect. However, this is not associated with the pentatonic or some
other scale. So everything is relative to the initial pitch.
While I thought that absolute pitch is a gift, i.e. an innate
ability, a friend of mine who graduated from the Conservatory in
Canton, China, told me that they all had to take the class on
"absolute pitch" training, i.e., to associate a pitch with a tone on
the tonal scale. It was a nightmare for some of the less fortunate
In summary, pitch is important in Chinese, but it is relative to the
initial pitch. We Chinese also have to learn the "absolute pitch".
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)
2) Chinese songs are almost completely devoid of the lexical tonal
information. (However, songs are special in their use of language -
especially regarding redundancy)
3) Tones are often sacrificed in natural speech (albeit using pragmatic
and contextual "rules")
4) Monotone computer speech synthesis is also understandable - by both
humans and machines - due to joint word frequency statistics as well as
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.
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.
Tom Brennan wrote:
Now let me make another comment on pitch. Languages such as Chinese
speak do absolutely require control of pitch so what you have said
speech not requiring pitch control is patently untrue for some
speech. I cannot
comment on speech training of Chinese deaf as I have no first hand
Biao Tian PhD
Department of Physiology and Biophysics
Georgetown Institute for Cognitive and Computational Sciences
Georgetown University Medical Center
The Research Building WP13
3970 Reservoir Road NW
Washington, DC 20007
tel: (202) 687-6438
fax: (202) 687-0617