Tuesday, January 27, 2015
  Intonation and deltas 2

A couple days ago I speculated on the absolutely flat speech intonation of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Today RealClearScience points to this brief note on the same general subject.

Their hypothesis:

"Tonal languages are remarkably rare in arid regions like Central Europe, whereas languages with complex tone pitches are prevalent in relatively humid regions such as the tropics, subtropical Asia, and Central Africa. Humidity keeps the voice box moist and elastic, allowing it to produce correct and complex tones."

Geographically this agrees with my specific observation. My No-Tone Zone is in Central Europe. But these maps of relative humidity don't agree. Admittedly these maps come from the Carbon Cultists of East Anglia, which makes them dubious; but with that caveat, they show the No-Tone Zone and most of China as the same 75% range. Sweden, which has developed a sort of tacked-on tonality, is in the 100% range, which does agree with their hypothesis. But England and Ireland are also 100% at the same latitude as Sweden. Both have 'average' intonation and haven't developed tonality.

Korea and Japan are more humid than most of China, and their languages share an origin with Chinese. Basically the same syllables as Chinese (allowing for the usual sound shifts) but without the music.

In other words, no correlation. Humidity may be part of the picture, but it's NOT the main driver. You don't get more vocal delta by living on a river delta.

I'm pretty sure tonality is always tacked-on. It's a habit that develops for a variety of reasons, then gets locked in by status and education. The China/Korea comparison shows that tonality is not phonemic. Koreans accomplish the same communication with the same underlying set of syllables, and they do it without tones. In fact, young Chinese males seem to have dropped the tones, and they are presumably understood by other Chinese people.

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