Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tone Sandhi and Cursive Speech

There is an interesting, detailed description of Thai tones from a learner's perspective at this webpage. I'm especially interested in the last couple of paragraphs:

What is cursive writing? That's when we write letters together in a string without lifting the pen up - the "b" runs into the "a" which runs into the "d". Why do we do such a lazy thing? Because it is faster. The same holds true for speech and tones in Thai. If Thai speakers were required to make a pure flat "high" tone followed by a pure flat "low" tone just as the Thai guide books imply, then they'd have to literally stop their voice & restart it at each tone at the exact level required.

So in cursive, natural speed speech, Thais need tones which can run from one to the next.

I don't normally think about tones in this much detail. But I have noticed that tones used in normal speech are more fluid than I used to think.

A linguist was recently telling me about "tone sandhi", a term for tonal pronunciation which changes depending on surrounding words. He compared this to an English speaker pronouncing the acronym "NPR" (a public radio network in the U.S.), which is often pronounced "em P R".

Much of the language acquisition material that I've read suggests focusing on phrases when acquiring words. Tone sandhi seems like one good reason to emphasize phrases.

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2 comments:

Peter said...

Quote from Scott Imig:
So in cursive, natural speed speech, Thais need tones which can run from one to the next ... tones used in normal speech are more fluid than I used to think.


Valuable observation tone transitions. In English, we do that effortlessly, without thinking about it. But learning "cursive speech" in a foreign language is like learning to dance with your tongue. Not easy.

I've been learning Thai language for two years. If the tone is wrong, the meaning is wrong, and Thais simply can not understand what I am trying to say. Learning the five tones has been difficult enough, but learning and practicing transitions from one tone to another has been more difficult by at least one order of magnitude.

Thank you, Scott, for pointing out this crucial aspect of learning Thai.

Scott Imig said...

Hi, Peter,

Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

It's great to hear that you've been studying Thai for two years. What materials, methods, or resources have you been using?