Tonal languages: Lip Reading and Singing

Hulalessar

Senior Member
English - England
Two points I have wondered about:

1. Do tonal languages present any special difficulties for lip readers?

2. When tonal languages are sung, are the tones lost? If they are, how does that affect comprehension?
 
  • Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thank you. Somewhat inconclusive. The remark: Two people may give you two versions of lyric for the same song was what I thought might be the case.
     

    hadronic

    Senior Member
    French - France
    I find this question quite similar to stress in songs
    As French is stressed on the last syllable, it most of the time fits quite well the last note of a musical stance, that is generally also stressed. So I can ask the same question for English : how English does when the last, stressed syllable of a stance is not English's stressed syllable ?
    The answer is that the stress rules give way to the song's stress.
    An example of that is the famous "Tradition, tradition!" of the Fiddler on the roof musical (which, for that matters, sounds better imho in the French rendering because it doesn't have to break the stress rules).
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    So I can ask the same question for English : how English does when the last, stressed syllable of a stance is not English's stressed syllable ?
    The answer is that the stress rules give way to the song's stress.
    The answer is that the lyrics are not written that way -- the words are chosen to match the stress pattern in the music. That even includes the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables in the words -- they matches downbeats and upbeats in the music.

    People don't simply write song lyrics without music, and then add music.
     

    pollohispanizado

    Senior Member
    Inglés canadiense
    There are also extremely few instances (if any) in which the stress of a word weighs more in a sentence than context and word order. It is not comparable to, say, Mandarin, in which every syllable has (at least) four possible meanings depending on the tone contour (words are mostly bisyllabic in Mandarin, but obviously it lends itself to misunderstandings).
     

    fdb

    Senior Member
    French (France)
    The answer is that the lyrics are not written that way -- the words are chosen to match the stress pattern in the music. That even includes the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables in the words -- they matches downbeats and upbeats in the music.

    People don't simply write song lyrics without music, and then add music.
    That is completely wrong. What about settings of the Latin mass? Settings of classical German poetry by Schumann, Schubert, etc. etc.?
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    I was referring to new songs in English. Not German poetry or Latin mass. Not famous old poetry added to music.

    I was replying to a question about English.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Nice to see this old thread revived especially as, prompted by a comment in another thread, I was looking for it only the other day and could not find it.

    No one commented on question 1 which asked if tonal languages presented special difficulties for lip readers.

    The question of whether the stress in the words of a song follow the music or the other way round is a bit of a chicken and egg question. There was a time when there was no distinction between poetry and song. Now the two have become separated it is often asserted that the best poetry does not make the best songs.
     

    pollohispanizado

    Senior Member
    Inglés canadiense
    The question of whether the stress in the words of a song follow the music or the other way round is a bit of a chicken and egg question
    I don't know who came up with this theory. I can say that, both in English and Spanish, it depends. In rap and other urban music styles, the beat is the beat, and the lyrics have to fit it, of course, but it's common to deform words to fit the beat; whereas singer-songwriters probably come up with lyrics first and then play around with melodies after. There is no rule, much less a cross-linguistic one.

    There was a time when there was no distinction between poetry and song. Now the two have become separated it is often asserted that the best poetry does not make the best songs
    Iambic pentameter sounds nice and rythmic, but it doesn't quite lend itself to spontaneous gut-spilling or experimentation the way that free-form poetry does.
     

    Ghabi

    Senior Member
    Cantonese
    No one commented on question 1 which asked if tonal languages presented special difficulties for lip readers.
    I just read a Mandarin-speaking lip reader's comments on the net, and found that it's not just about the tones: you also can't tell the aspirated and inaspirated initials apart. According to her, she has to relate a large number of words to a single "mouth shape" real quick, and then eliminate the unlikely and impossible based on context. An interesting thing she says is that she's actually forgot the tones of many words, as she doesn't rely on them to tell words apart.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    Mandarin has a large number of same-sounding 1-syllable words. The 4 tones help, but tones only reduce the number. For example, all-tones "yu" matches 252 words in my dictionary, while 3d-tone "yǔ" only matches 41. Each syllable has a tone and a written character.

    Mandarin has 1-syllable (20%) and 2-syllable (80%) words. Many 2-syllable words consist of two 1-syllable words. That helps too. For example there are only 5 words in my dictionary pronounced "hanyu", and only 1 pronounced "hànyǔ": 汉语.

    But a listener needs context to determine whether a syllable is a word by itself, or is part of a word with the next syllable. So context is essential. Without tones (in songs) it is just more difficult. Lip-reading is even more difficult.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I just read a Mandarin-speaking lip reader's comments on the net, and found that it's not just about the tones: you also can't tell the aspirated and inaspirated initials apart. According to her, she has to relate a large number of words to a single "mouth shape" real quick, and then eliminate the unlikely and impossible based on context. An interesting thing she says is that she's actually forgot the tones of many words, as she doesn't rely on them to tell words apart.
    That is of course something like what happens when lipreading any language. There are a lot fewer visual signs than auditory ones. I suppose what is implicit in my question is: How intelligible are tonal languages if you take away the tones?
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I don't know who came up with this theory. I can say that, both in English and Spanish, it depends. In rap and other urban music styles, the beat is the beat, and the lyrics have to fit it, of course, but it's common to deform words to fit the beat; whereas singer-songwriters probably come up with lyrics first and then play around with melodies after. There is no rule, much less a cross-linguistic one.


    Iambic pentameter sounds nice and rythmic, but it doesn't quite lend itself to spontaneous gut-spilling or experimentation the way that free-form poetry does.
    Practice obviously varies. Rap is a halfway house between verse and song. However, take away the words and the music is unlikely to hold the attention for long. I imagine it was much the same with early poetry - not so much words with a melody, but intoned or chanted words. If Homer was sung, it was not sung like opera.

    Shakespeare did not find iambic pentameters a fetter. I quote Milton on the subject:

    For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
    Thy easy numbers flow.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    Shakespeare did not find iambic pentameters a fetter.
    How do you know? Perhaps Shakespeare cursed iambic pentameter frequently, because it forced him to say "oh, cruel knave" instead of "bite me". Yes, his iambic pentameter was good. But maybe his fetterless prose was even better. I imagine his manager saying "Willy, Willy, give the people what they want -- nice solid iambic pentameter!"

    Iambic pentameter sounds nice and rythmic, but it doesn't quite lend itself to spontaneous gut-spilling or experimentation the way that free-form poetry does.
    It is the eternal tradeoff. Would you rather "sound nice and rhythmic" or would you rather spill guts? English poetry (and even songs) do both. Some of them use rhyming and pentameter, and others don't. Some of them tell stories clearly, while others use imcomprehensible metaphors (the internet is full of their "interpretations").
     

    pollohispanizado

    Senior Member
    Inglés canadiense
    Shakespeare did not find iambic pentameters a fetter. I quote Milton on the subject:

    For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
    Thy easy numbers flow
    Perhaps if he were alive today, he would be a Hemmingway-esque card-counter in some gambling city, say Vegas or Macau.... (Too out there?:D) Some people just have a natural counter in their head; they don't even have to think about it. Add to that a sharp wit, a playful use of English and voilà! Some people also enjoy writing within certain restraints or restrictions.
     

    Ghabi

    Senior Member
    Cantonese
    I suppose what is implicit in my question is: How intelligible are tonal languages if you take away the tones?
    You have this perennial stock character in Cantonese TV drama: a foreigner speaking "monotonal" Cantonese. He sounds funny (in a totally un-PC way) but he's understood by those merry men and women around him. This stereotype is so deep-rooted that many Cantonese speakers would themselves speak "monotonally" to foreigners because, obviously, the latter would understand better this way!

    I think the point is, given that your speech is sufficiently long and you do everything else right (syntax, word choice etc), you will be understood even though you speak "monotonally". Perhaps the information load carried by tones is not that great after all (at least not so great that it can't be compensated by context).

    In the post I quoted above the girl mentions that on one occasion she can't tell whether her roommate says she's going to "attend a class" (shàngkè) or "sing" (chànggē) when leaving. This kind of situation must occur frequently, but if something more had been said by her roommate, the ambiguity would certainly have been solved.

    Traditionally, the tones of words in a Cantonese song need to match the melody. When the words are not understood, it's usually due to the fact that the lyric doesn't correspond to normal speech, with all those coinages and loose/convoluted syntax (which are employed probably for the sake of rhyme and matching the melody, so there's a sort of paradox: the tones are perfect but still no one knows what the words combine to mean!) etc etc.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    How do you know? Perhaps Shakespeare cursed iambic pentameter frequently, because it forced him to say "oh, cruel knave" instead of "bite me". Yes, his iambic pentameter was good. But maybe his fetterless prose was even better. I imagine his manager saying "Willy, Willy, give the people what they want -- nice solid iambic pentameter!"


    It is the eternal tradeoff. Would you rather "sound nice and rhythmic" or would you rather spill guts? English poetry (and even songs) do both. Some of them use rhyming and pentameter, and others don't. Some of them tell stories clearly, while others use imcomprehensible metaphors (the internet is full of their "interpretations").
    How do I know? Because Milton said so! It all comes down to whether you think art should have rules. The extreme case is someone who declares: "I am an artist. Anything I do is art."
     
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