Can a tonal language ever become non-tonal?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by COF, May 15, 2013.

  1. COF Member

    English - Wales
    There are cases such as Cantonese where tonal languages gradually loose tones as some tones merge into one, but are there any cases in which a tonal language stops being tonal because its speakers gradually stop observing tone rules and thus the tonal system gradually loses its significance and necessity for comprehension?
  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    Well, Shanghainese has a radically reduced tonal range compared to most Chinese languages. I found this clear explanation, which makes it sound a lot like the Japanese contour system: I don't actually know that this developed from a more typical system of tonally contrastive syllables - it might just be a relic of ancient non-tonal Chinese, I suppose.

    Proto-Indo-European was tonal, preserved in various descendants such as Lithuanian, but replaced by a stress accent in many branches.
  3. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    Greek in its Classical & Koine form was a tonal language, roughly up to 50 BCE. The gradual loss of tonal characteristics of the language is what lead the Hellenistic grammarian Aristophanes the Byzantine (3rd c. BCE) to invent his accent system to help preserve the tonal and pitched pronunciation system of earlier centuries:

    High-low tone --> ó-ò: «ῶ» ô (circumflex)
    Low-high tone --> ò-ó: «ώ» ṓ (acute)
    Proclitic low-high tone --> ò-ó: «ὼ» ṑ (grave)

    By the second half of 1st c. BCE, the tonal & pitched system of Classical Greek had given way to the stress-based system of Byzantine & Modern Greek.
  4. clevermizo Moderator

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    Let's all also keep in mind that it is believed that Old Chinese or its predecessor was non-tonal. So I have a feeling that the evolution can go in either direction.
  5. Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Whilst there may not be a hard and fast distinction between them, I think one has to make a distinction between languages with a pitch accent where pitch operates in the same way as stress accent does in a language like English (that is where words of two or more syllables may be distinguished from each other, but monosyllabic words are not) and one where every syllable has a tone assigned to it.
  6. iobyo Senior Member

    Bitola, Macedonia
    Proto-Slavic is thought to have had a pitch accent which was lost in all Slavic languages with the notable exception of BCS (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian) and Slovenian.
  7. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    I'm guessing this one of the points of evidence for Proto-Balto-Slavic?
  8. Ben Jamin Senior Member

  9. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    What about Czech and Slovak? They definitely have a distinctive rhythm? (Slovak to a lesser extent). Czech apparently has three degrees of hight of the sound, and three degrees of backness, whatever that means? Would it be to some degree tonal, then, as well, not just the BCS languages and Slovenian?
    Last edited: May 27, 2013
  10. myšlenka Senior Member

    From what I can make out of it, this means that Czech has 3 vowel heights (e.g. i, e, a) and 3 vowels in the front/back dimension (e.g. i, a, u). It has got nothing to do with tone.

    And to answer the more general question from COF:
    I don't have any empirical backup but "once a tone language, always a tone language" cannot possibly hold. So yes, languages may stop being tonal.
  11. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Well it is not a flat spoken language (like Polish, for example). It definitely has a specific intonation but on a sentence level, not on the lexical level (within words). How do you treat such languages?

    A tonal language can definitely become non-tonal. Certain tones are disappearing in languages, for example Latvian, in certain regions has only two tones, instead of three or even four. Some people even speak it the way so you can't clearly hear the tones. Even Lithuanian can be spoken this way, although it is not the right way to speak it. Some people speak it the way Russian is spoken.
    Last edited: May 27, 2013
  12. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    every language has an intonation, not only tonal languages, but in tonal languages minimal pairs of words differ only in their tone (like in Swedish) and have different meaning.
  13. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Yes, this is true, but still certain tones are disappearing. I wonder how you differentiate between similar words if the tones change. Do the vowels change as well, or do the words become homophones?
  14. myšlenka Senior Member

    Are you talking about change or disappearance? If the tones disappear, you would differentiate between words just like you do in any other non-tonal language. If they change, you would still be able to differentiate between them as long as the contrast is intact.
  15. clevermizo Moderator

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    Mandarin Chinese has gotten around this I believe, by becoming increasingly polysyllabic. Most content words are composed of more than one syllable in a base form. This is not true of other Chinese languages that have more tones to distinguish different words. Mandarin has also lost some other things, like final -p,-t,-k, so its instance of homophonic morphemes is pretty high.

    I wouldn't be surprised if Shanghainese depends on these sorts of processes to mitigate its loss of phonemic tones.

    Even where phonological features change, where it becomes important to distinguish meaning, language innovate or make use of other mechanisms.
  16. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    An example of detonalization is the northern group of dialects (Nordland) in Norway.
  17. COF Member

    English - Wales
    I have read that Burmese has reached the point where the tones are only academic and in reality most speakers don't observe them. In essence it seems that Burmese has shifted from being a contour tonal language to a pitch-register language.

    Are there any other examples of an Asian Contour tonal language shifting to pitch-register system?

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