The intonation with which a sentence is pronounced is a key element of communication, indeed it is as crucial as the meaning of the sentence itself. In Italian, for example, as with most of the languages spoken in Europe and the Americas, the same sentence can be a question or a statement based purely on intonation.
In some languages, tone is extremely important, and the meaning of a word can change completely depending on how it is pronounced. When this is the case, we are dealing with a tonal language.
In Mandarin Chinese (the most widely spoken language in the world, with 865 million speakers as compared with 334 million English speakers worldwide), for example, the same syllable spoken in different tones corresponds to different meanings. For instance, the syllable “ma” pronounced in the first tone (mā) means “mother”, in the second tone (má) it means “hemp”, in the third tone (mǎ) it means “horse” and in the fourth tone (mà) it means “to insult”.
Imagine you were pronouncing four tones: the first tone corresponds to the highest pitch, while the fourth tone starts from the highest pitch and falls to the lowest.
Getting the tone just right in these countries is therefore essential to make oneself understood, and it seems that climate has an influence on this.
In support of this hypothesis, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Evolutionary Anthropology and Mathematics in Leipzig (Germany) analysed 3,750 languages from different linguistic families. According to their findings, tonal languages are primarily concentrated in humid environments such as those found in the tropical areas of Subtropical Asia and Central Africa.
The explanation is physiological: higher humidity levels lubricate the mucous membranes of the vocal folds and change their balance, making them more elastic and functional so that they can oscillate more freely and produce a wider range of tonal pitches.
A word of advice to anyone visiting these countries: make sure you don’t improvise the pronunciation of the local language, you risk getting “mums” for “horses”.
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