9.19.2006

Chinese whispers

I was listening to a sermon (in English), and a woman behind me was whispering to her kid in Chinese, probably telling him to settle down. I've heard different languages before, so it didn't strike me as surprising that someone was speaking another language in a mostly English situation. However, it made me wonder about whispering in Chinese and other tonal languages.

English and lots of other languages are easy to whisper in because all we care about are the words that are being spoken, and it really doesn't matter how we're saying them because it's the words that matter, not the delivery (unless you're asking a question or are angry or whatever).

But whispering in a tonal language is a whole other issue, because the tones convey the meaning of the words. So was the mother shifting or flattening or de-emphasizing the tones as she was whispering, or was she just partially expressing the words, thus it was up to the kid to get the context? It seems that whispering would deaden the tones because they're not uttering sounds, just punctuated breaths.

I should ask someone, and I will--next week I'm going to ask a Chinese person if whispering in their language changes the sounds of the words, thus the clarity of the meaning. Or I can ask a Thai person--who I'm sure is freaked that there's been a coup there!

3 comments:

Arrogant Polyglot said...

What a fascinating question! If I should happen to brave asking the question to a Chinese person, I'll be sure to let you know.

mj said...

Hopefully someone wouldn't be perplexed by the question--I can't see that an average person (ie, someone who's not interested in language) ever having given any thought to it.

Lenoxus said...

English has features that are lost in whispers too, namely consonant voicing. A "fully whispered" famous pangram would sound a bit like "Thuh quick prown fox chumps owe-fer the lay-see dock." However, in addition to being able to parse by context (for example, chump isn't a verb) we tend to soften the whispered consonant, so that there's still some distinction.