I have a theory. I do not believe that Chinese is a tonal language. It is alleged that Mandarin has four tones: 1st tone (a high flat tone); 2nd tone (a rising tone); 3rd tone (a dipping tone, where the tone falls and then rises again); and, 4th tone (a falling tone). I don’t think so.
If Chinese really were tonal that would mean that at some point in prehistory the language’s inventor had to be sitting around choosing words for his new language, and decided that it would be smart to assign an awful lot of unrelated items/actions essentially the same word. Imagine the scene: Our ancient scholar sits under the banyan tree naming things brought by his assistants. First they bring him some rope, he looks at it judiciously, and says, “I shall call this ma (麻) [hemp]”. Next the assistant leads in a horse, the great sage deliberates, and calls it ma (馬). Just then a toad hops by stalking an ant, and the sage looks upon it and names the toad ma (蟆). When the toad catches the ant, the sage exclaims, “Look that ma just ate a ma (螞)”, giving predator and meal the same name. Just then the sage’s mother comes to see him. He looks upon her with filial eyes and calls her ma (媽). But, then she spoke angrily to him and asking why he was lying in the tree’s shade with chores still to be done. “Ahh, ma why must you always [thinking on the fly the scholar decided his mom’s actions were best described as, you guessed it] ma (罵) [scold] me so?” In a moment of bold inspiration he ended the sentence with ma (嗎) indicating to his mother that he was asking a question. Quite proud of his achievements he decided to take a little morphine, or what he fondly called ma (嗎), and drifted off to sleep.
Notice that in the story there are different words in English for the different things. That is logical and expected. However, in spoken Chinese they’re all the same word. The characters are different, but they developed much later than the oral language. I randomly chose the ma sound, but could just as easily have used shi, xi, chi or any other Chinese sound.
It’s ludicrous on the face of it.
Obviously the language’s oral indistinctness causes limitless opportunities for miscommunication. For example, if I’m saying something about miandian am I talking about Myanmar or a bread store. Who knows? Or, if I’m mentioning koujiao, am I referring to the corner of the mouth, a blowjob, or garnering your wages? Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe you can get it from context—is the penis pointing towards the corner of the mouth or scraping the tonsils? Obviously this is no way to make a language.
If we were to accept that Chinese is tonal, then we’d also need to accept Ma ma ma ma, ma ma ma as a valid sentence. That’s problematic. I would contend that no one would be thoughtless enough to create a language that way. Even if one person were that crazy, certainly no one would adopt such a language. It would be a dead language before it got started. It would be lunacy for tones to play a central role in expressing meaning, therefore there are no tones in Chinese. Q.E.D.
What I think is happening is that the Chinese are playing the greatest practical joke in history, and it is Andy Kaufmanesque in its surreal brilliance. Nobody expects it from the Chinese. Everybody thinks they have no sense of humor. Turns out they’re freaking hilarious!
I see them giggling behind their hands as foreigners try to pronounce Chinese with ridiculously exaggerated tones:
Foreigner #1: NIIiiIII HHhaaAOO MA?
Foreigner #2: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO, NIIiiIII ne?
Foreigner #1: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO 。
Chinese Man #1: Aiyah, listen to those two foreigners.
Chinese Man #2: What a pair of silly tits. Seriously, who’d speak like that?
Chinese Man #1: I can’t believe we’ve been pulling this for millennia.
Chinese Man #2: It never gets old.
If you’re a student of Chinese, just when you start making progress with tones, someone will crank up the joke and tell you that you’ve been doing the tones all wrong. They’ll claim that if a 3rd tone word is followed by another 3rd tone word, the preceding word changes to 2nd tone. If there is a series of 3rd tone sounds in a row, then each in turn changes to 2nd tone, until the final 3rd tone word, which reverts back to 3rd tone.
should actually be
They’re pulling your leg. It is an obvious practical joke. Who is going to keep track of how many 3rd tones they will be saying in a row, and which will be the last in the series? If that much calculation were required while speaking no one would ever be able to produce a sentence.
Even children are in on the joke. Ask a young Chinese person to teach you a tongue twister sometime. They may teach you a genuine tongue twister like:
吃 葡 萄 不 吐 葡 萄 皮 ,不 吃 葡 萄 倒 吐 葡 萄 皮。
Chi pu tao bu tu pu tao pi, bu chi pu tao dao tu pu tao pi
This will have you tripping over the words. But, if the child has a sardonic sense of humor he might suggest this tongue twister:
媽媽騎馬。 馬慢, 媽媽罵馬。
Mama qi ma. Ma man, mama ma ma
Not a terribly tough “tongue twister” is it? Even having never spoken Chinese, you should be able to say this one very quickly. It is almost all the same word. See, this joke operates on many levels and can be appreciated by a diverse cross-section of Chinese society.
Well played my Asian friends, well played.