Two kinda dumb questions about tonal languages

So I’m watching a Thai movie at the Seattle film festival last night. The main character is deaf – not partially impaired, stone deaf. It becomes clear pretty quickly that he can’t really read lips, that with effort he can puzzle out a few words here and there, but in general he has to communicate with gestures and writing.

That got me to wondering: Is it possible to read lips with a tonal language? Different words may have the same consonant and vowel in Western writing, but different inflections; whether your tone is rising or falling on a given syllable changes its meaning. If you can’t hear the changing tone, all you can see is the lips going “b” and then the mouth forming “eye,” or whatever, then does that mean lipreading is impossible? Or is it just more subtle, where the lipreader learns to also read the muscular shifts under the jawline as well?

Along the same lines, what about whispering? If you can’t use the voice, if you’re just “breath-talking” (for lack of a better word), how comprehensible is the language?

(Yeah, I know, kinda dumb questions. But like I said, I was wondering, and if we didn’t have dumb questions, this board’s traffic would be cut in half. ;))

Just wondering: Is there no response because nobody knows, or because the question is – ahem :slight_smile: – painfully stupid?

Now I’m even more curious than I was before.

On the contrary, it is a very intelligent question. One so well phrased it is virtually impossible to try to B.S. one’s way through. That’s why no responses.

Now in mild response to your question. I knew a deaf man while I was in the Western Pacific on the island of Yap. He seemed to communicate well in Yapese, which is also a tonal language (he used to joke with me that I was the only man he knew who spoke the language worse than he).

I, of course, while knowing him for the better part of two years was never intelligent enough to think about the concept you raised after seeing (probably a very poor) a single Thai movie.


Agreed. I don’t know the answer, but it’s not a dumb question. I once had a similar question about how people sing in tonal languages. A Chinese coworker told me that they rely a lot on context to understand song lyrics because the tonality does tend to get messed up.

I would guess that lip readers use context a lot in all languages - how do you tell the difference between a “b” and “p”?

According to this collumn of Cecil’s, even if you can hear the tone, there are an average of 17 meanings for each sylable! Imagine how hard it would be to decipher if you couldn’t hear the tone, and could’t distinguish “b” from “p”, etc.

(OTOH, Some one here must know this first hand–I know we’ve got speakers of tonal languages here. Don’t they ever whisper? We also have at least one very regular contributer who is hearing impaired. Handy, might you have any contacts who would know the answer personally?)

Yes, I know of people that can lip read Chinese to a reasonable degree. As to the why, Chinese generally is a di-syllabic langugage. A simple example would be the word “go”. In Chinese, there may be 20 words with that proununciation, and say maybe 5 words with that pronounciation and tone. Even if you can hear, it can be confusing. So, in Chinese, rather than say “go”, you would tack on another word or syllable and say “go out”.

In the two word or two syllable context, then it is usually pretty clear what word is used.

Lip readers do the same