Tonal Languages

As readers of this blog know (probably all too well), until I retired from the federal government more than thirty years ago, I was linguist/spy working in seven different foreign languages.

The two languages that sparked my greatest interest were Vietnamese and Chinese. I found them so fascinating because they both are monosyllabic and tonal, meaning that they are made up of words no longer than a single syllable and use inflection to determine meaning. The northern dialect of Vietnamese (the preferred dialect and the one I learned) has six tones; Chinese Mandarin (the dialect I studied, also called 国语, gwo-yu, meaning “national language”) has four.

The Vietnamese tones are level (ngang: spoken on a single pitch as if sung), rising (sc), descending (huyn), upper broken (ngã), lower rounded (hi), and lower with a glottal stop (nng). The four Chinese tones are: First tone (level, ; character: 妈; meaning: mother), second tone (rising, chuáng; character 床; meaning: bed), third tone (fall/rise, wǒ; character: 我; meaning: I [first person singular pronoun]), and fourth tone (falling, dàn; character: 蛋; meaning: egg).

Although both languages are monosyllabic, they both employ what are called compounds, in which two syllables are put together to create more complex words. The Vietnamese word for “nation,” for example, is dân tộc, combining dân, meaning “citizen” with tộc, meaning “family.” Neither language has anything like a western grammar with parts of speech, tenses, and passive voice. Instead, they depend on word order and context to convey meaning.

Most westerners have a terrible time with tones, but I, having taken a BA in music, simply thought of the languages as musical and had no problem learning and using tones. More important, I found the underlying logic in these languages so different from anything I had ever known that I ended up learning a new way to think. That ability has proven invaluable to me as a fiction writer. I am grateful for the gift.


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