Real-time correlates of phonological quantity reveal unity of tonal and non-tonal languages

Juhani Järvikivi*, Martti Vainio, Daniel Aalto

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
110 Downloads (Pure)


Discrete phonological phenomena form our conscious experience of language: continuous changes in pitch appear as distinct tones to the speakers of tone languages, whereas the speakers of quantity languages experience duration categorically. The categorical nature of our linguistic experience is directly reflected in the traditionally clear-cut linguistic classification of languages into tonal or non-tonal. However, some evidence suggests that duration and pitch are fundamentally interconnected and co-vary in signaling word meaning in non-tonal languages as well. We show that pitch information affects real-time language processing in a (non-tonal) quantity language. The results suggest that there is no unidirectional causal link from a genetically-based perceptual sensitivity towards pitch information to the appearance of a tone language. They further suggest that the contrastive categories tone and quantity may be based on simultaneously covarying properties of the speech signal and the processing system, even though the conscious experience of the speakers may highlight only one discrete variable at a time.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12603
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalPloS one
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2010
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


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