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June 21, 2020


I find it sometimes helps English speakers to grasp how Chinese tones work to give an example. Suppose you say:

Joe is from Alabama.
That's just a statement of fact. But if you put a rising inflection at the end, the meaning changes. Suddenly it's a question. Possibly, depending on the details of the inflection, a disbelieving one.

English doesn't use a lot of them. And, except for questions, not centrally. Japanese, as I recall, doesn't use them at all. But in Chinese, they are rife.

Tones can be inconvenient for people peddling propaganda: I think I've mentioned before that I have it on reasonably erudite Chinese authority that, contrary to whatever is said about Mandarin and the necessity for its cultural primacy, Tang dynasty poetry only rhymes in Cantonese. I'm open to contradiction by anybody in a position to deny, I'm only reporting hearsay.

A lot of heresy starts with hearsay...

Mandarin and Cantonese (also Xiang, Wu, etc.) are obviously related, sharing basic grammar and (some) phonemes. But anyone who expects the vocabulary to be similar would do better to try Spanish and Swedish (which likewise share a writing system: the Latin alphabet).

Mao (the currently dead dictator) vs.
Mao (= cat, the current dictator) supposedly differ only in tone. Not that I would know.

One has a "little red book", the other has a "little red shredded fake mouse".

Japanese: Aoi covers both blue and green? Color blindness, or memory loss.

Japanese: Aoi covers both blue and green

Just a different way to divide up what is, after all, a continuous spectrum.

Does any body happen to know what major colors are used in Swahili or by Indigenous Australians? I knew Japanese did it differently than Europeans, but I find out I have no clue how the rest of humanity does it....

"In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of color. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn."
Do You See What I See?: Cultural groups throughout the world talk about color differently—some don’t even have a word for color. So is color perception a universal human experience or not?

Japanese aoi is the more basic term. It is used for the traffic signal and for more archaic uses. Midori is the term for green.

As CharlesWT's link points out, the work of Berlin and Kay argues that there is a hierarchy


One can think of it as dividing up the color spectrum into discrete units, however, you can't simply do that randomly, because it is related to the three receptors in the eye, which are combined to give color perception, which is they combined in the brain to reassemble the units.

About tone, Japanese has pitch-accent. The late James McCawley, in one of his discussions of Japanese phonology, says that Japanese could be analyzed as a tone language with just one tone.


McCawley was a linguist who always argued with a twinkle in his eye, so this could be him doing that, but it does raise interesting questions as to whether Japaense was historically a tonal language that lost it.

I've always understood this best by imagining the different ways the word "Dude" can be inflected. Questioning, in anger, disgust, adulation, exasperation, approval, surprise, fear, ...

The tonal nature of Chinese is one aspect of the language utilized by dissidents (or "edgy teenagers") to talk about taboo issues. A well-known example in the Chinese-speaking internet is the "Grass Mud Horse" song.


Spelled phonetically, you'd pronounce "Grass Mud Horse" as "Cǎo ní mǎ". This isn't *exactly* the same as (excuse my language) "Fuck your Mother"Cāo nǐ mā", but when it's sung as part of a song, it basically sounds exactly the same.

So of course in this arms race, Chinese censors have to widen the number of potentially suspicious terms that are banned. This explains why a lot of seemingly innocuous terms are banned when used together.

Colour divisions are not at all constant across languages. Ancient Greek had a single word κυανός for dark blue and dark green. Russian has different words for light blue, голубой, and dark blue, синий.

Gladstone put quite some intellectual effort into the Homeric colour question (and got ridiculed for that at the time).
Russians put the split between blue and green in a different place than other Europeans too.

I find it sometimes helps English speakers to grasp how Chinese tones work to give an example...

It seems to me that this gives entirely the wrong impression. Tonality used to distinguish lexical meanings is a different thing from intonation used to indicate something about a sentence.

Indeed, native speakers of tonal languages seem to find it particularly difficult to use intonation in spoken English.

I didn't intend to give an example of how tones are unsed in Chinese languages. In my experience, a lot of native English speakers have trouble with the concept of tones providing meaning at all. Discovering that they do it themselves with questions seems, again in my experience, to open their minds to the very idea.

For what it's worth, I suspect that lack of an opening is why we have even more trouble with click phonemes.

Colour divisions are not at all constant across languages

they're not necessarily constant within a language, either. take look at the Wiki for "pink". several of the shades listed there could easily be described as "red" or "purple" (and several are, in the various color systems listed alongside each swatch). and a couple don't look anything like "pink". ex. Silver Pink RGB(196, 174, 173) a light grey with the slightest hint of red; or Champagne Pink RGB(241, 221, 207), which is described in one color system as "yellowish-white".

My favorite example about tones was working on Thai and having students (including me) say some word where we were checking to make sure we had it right with and interogative intonation, getting it right and then saying it in a declarative and the teacher is like 'hey you just got it right!( like this dialogue. (not sure if this is the right word, but you get the idea)

student: sua?
teacher: Di, di maak! (great!)
student: (relaxed that they got it right) sua.
teacher: man phid! (That's wrong)

This cycle could go on 3 or 4 times. Hilarious to hear it, but when you are tired and do it, you just shake your head.

Does this account (or contribute) to the phenonmenon of men having a smaller vocabularly related to color

my wife has worked for the last few years as an interior designer. she has been trying to persuade me for most of that time that there exists a color called 'taupe'. she claims that it's 'the color of mushrooms', which I have always assumed was called 'brown'.

I'll ask her - "is that taupe?". She replies - "No, that's brown".

"Is that taupe?" "No, that's more of a dark lavender, with gray tones".

"Is that...?" "No, beige".

And so on.

I'm beginning to think she's having me on.

I'm beginning to think she's having me on

LOL. Ask her to introduce you to the concept of "mink". That'll up the ante...

There's the biological aspect of color vision. I use to see claims that Japanese in general could see more shades of color than most other people. But that may be more due to language than physical differences. But some women have superhuman color vision.

"As Concetta Antico took her pupils to the park for an art lesson, she would often question them about the many shades she saw flashing before her eyes. “I’d say, ‘Look at the light on the water – can you see the pink shimmering across that rock? Can you see the red on the edge of that leaf there?’” The students would all nod in agreement. It was only years later that she realised they were just too polite to tell the truth: the colours she saw so vividly were invisible to them."
The women with superhuman vision: A tiny group of people can see ‘invisible’ colours that no-one else can perceive, discovers David Robson. How do they do it?

IIRC, there was a woman in Wales, and her daughter, that were found to have FOUR color receptor in their eyes. Wild, if true.

As for color divisions, YELLOW is the only case where everyone should agree on the divisions, because it's a narrow band of wavelengths where the response from red receptors and green receptors are of equal magnitude.

Colour divisions are not at all constant across languages.

Is it possible that the divisions chosen depend on the particular tones common in the local environment?

Just uninformed conjecture.

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