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Tone in languages with a lot of homonyms

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 Message 9 of 9
04 September 2014 at 5:51pm | IP Logged 
LanguagePhysics wrote:
vonPeterhof wrote:
I realize that pitch accent isn't really emphasized in
Japanese instruction, both for natives and non-natives, but it does exist in Standard Japanese as well as
most of the dialects, and it is a weakly tonal distinction that helps distinguish words that would otherwise be
homophones. Context and qualifiers also help.

I can see how pitch accent helps distinguish between homonyms to some extent, but that still doesn't explain
why Japanese has at least as many homonyms as Chinese yet does not share the same complex tonal

People often claim that the tonal system is absolutely vital to the comprehension of Chinese and without it no
one would be able to understand anything, yet the Japanese language appears to be proof that this is simply
not the case.

If a pitch accent system is enough to distinguish between homonyms in Japanese then sure that means that
hypothetically Chinese could also function with a pitch accent system rather than the four tone system that is
present in Standard Chinese?
There is at least one variety of Chinese whose tonal system has
transformed into a pitch accent system - Shanghainese. Like Mandarin it has lost most of syllable-final
consonants, but unlike most other Chinese varieties if has retained voiced initial consonants, whose loss,
IIRC, is considered to have triggered the expansion of tonal systems in most Southern Chinese branches.

Even though Japanese has a much smaller phonemic inventory than pretty much all existing Chinese
varieties, it does have a few other "advantages" that make it easier to avoid homophones:

-polysyllabic morphemes - the limited number of permissible morae/syllables is compensated by spreading
meaning over several of them.
-inflection - harder to confuse similar-sounding different parts of speech if their role in the sentence is clearly
indicated by endings, suffixes and particles.
-a relative preference for loanwords over calques - new concepts entering the language can be expressed
with new morphemes, rather than by rearranging existing ones (although this one's a mixed bag, since
there's no guarantee that the new morpheme won't sound identically to an existing one, like "demo" - native
Japanese for "but", as well as a contraction of "demonstration". In fact the homophone problem in Japanese
is felt much more acutely in passages containing lots of Chinese loanwords. However, this is less common in
everyday conversations and more mundane written texts).

And again, the importance of context cannot be stressed enough, especially in colloquial Japanese where
pretty much anything that's clear from the context can and most likely will be omitted entirely. I don't know
enough about Chinese to tell how similar or dissimilar it is to Japanese in this regard, but there will always be
cases where no matter how similar two words are, one of them "just doesn't fit here". Besides, if Dungan, a
standardized 3-toned variety of Mandarin written using the Cyrillic alphabet, may be written and understood
by its native speakers without any tone marks, maybe those tones aren't that vital after all.

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