Many famous scholars write about how characters will (or should) be replaced by a romanized alphabet (link). But I’ve been wondering about whether Chinese could lose something else it’s famous for. Could Chinese ever lose its tones?
Chinese without tones? But aren’t tones kind of essential to Chinese? Yes, they are. If you’re learning Chinese and don’t know your tones, frustration will ensue. Tones are important (a subject I’ve been known to blog about), but there is one situation where tones don’t matter: music.
Why don’t chinese songs have tones, and how can Chinese speakers understand the words without them? (Ask antimoon has a few good answers to this question). The fact that Chinese people do understand music lyrics proves that it is possible for Chinese speakers to understand tone-less Chinese.
But could tone-less Chinese become more widespread?
Your teacher understands mistake-ridden Chinese
Most people aren’t used to hearing toneless (or bad tones) in spoken Chinese. But as anyone who’s studied Chinese can tell you: teachers seem to have an uncanny ability to understand what you’re trying to say. Chinese teachers get exposed to a lot of poor Chinese, and thus can usually understand it pretty well. Boyfriends, girlfriend, coworkers, and friends also get pretty good at figuring out your imperfect tones.
The point is, if given the chance (or exposed to a lot of Chinese learners) Chinese people can learn to understand bad tones.
A world with toneless Chinese
I’ve already established that Chinese people could learn to understand bad tones. But I still haven’t gotten to the hard meat of the debate: what could cause Chinese to lose its tones? Here’s what I think could happen:
Imagine a world where all of a sudden a large number of non-native chinese people start speaking Chinese for various reasons. These people, not having mastered tones will have poor tones. As more and more learners communicate with native speakers, two things will happen to native Chinese speakers. First, their ability to figure out what people are saying will improve. Second, their sense of tones will get worse. They’ll even start making tone mistakes!
With enough time (and enough foreign-speakers) Chinese could lose it tones. Ah what an irony it would be: becoming a lingua franca could cause Chinese to lose some of its distinctiveness.