Tonal vs. Total Languages: Do You Know The Difference?

September 30, 2010 / by Rachel Reardon

figures speakingIn obtaining language comprehension, it is important to understand the total language. What makes a total language? For starters, a total language is very different from a tonal language. A tonal language is one in which pitch is used as part of speech. Examples include Mandarin and Vietnamese. Vietnamese is a tonal language that has 6 tones: mid-level, high-rising, low-falling, low-falling-rising, high-rising broken, and low-falling broken. In other words the word “ma” can mean: ghost, mother, but, tomb, horse, or rice seed depending on the pitch of the “a.”

Vietnamese and Mandarin also share some of the characteristics of a total language. A total language is one which has, and makes use of: words, letters, sounds, gerunds, grammar, participles, phonemes, characters, punctuation, words of different sizes, infinitives, subject agreements, irony, sentence structure, inflection, cases, names, correct spelling, and origin. Linguist purists have long debated whether all 19 elements are necessary for a language to be attain the coveted "total language" designation. Most concede that a language need only to encompass enough of these fundamental elements to make communication possible.

English is not a tonal language. Do you speak or know anyone who speaks any tonal languages?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Rachel Reardon

Written by Rachel Reardon

Rachel works with some of the coolest marketers, designers, and writers around to help Mango look and sound its best. She loves bold colors, old books, the Montréal metro, and Star Trek. She has conflicting feelings about the Oxford comma.

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