lichtrausch wrote:Do you find yourself warming up to tonal languages thanks to Burmese?
Sorry for the slow reply! Turns out I have a lot to say about this.
One way that dabbling in Burmese has helped me warm up to tonal languages is that it's inspired me to read about tonogenesis, and particularly tonogenesis in the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area. I find it quite interesting (I've just posted about it here), and I think that's made me at least a little more motivated to study tonal languages in the future.
Since this hasn't come up in the log, some context on my previous effort to learn a tonal language:
Ten years ago, I lived in Hanoi for almost a year, and I was pretty motivated to learn Vietnamese. I had done some Pimsleur before I got there, and while there I took classes, drilled old-school flashcards, read children books, and had halting but often fairly involved conversations.
I enjoyed it, but it was slow going. The sound system of Vietnamese was full of things that were new to me: preglottalized and implosive [ʔɓ] and [ʔɗ], labial-velar [k͡p] and [ŋ͡m], unrounded back vowels, lots of diphthongs and triphthongs... It's really a feast of interesting sounds, but this was before I studied phonetics, and while I was game to try and imitate these sounds, it was challenging without a clear understanding of what needed to happen in the mouth.
And then six tones. For a long time, I had to think about the tone of each and every syllable I produced, a bit like a novice guitar player who has to think about the fingering of each chord. Eventually the tones did start to gel, but I wouldn't say they ever became automatic and flowing. And then I left Vietnam and forgot almost everything I had learned.
I didn't study any tonal languages between Vietnamese and Burmese, but since joining the forum and filling up my plate at the language buffet, I've considered other tonal and/or analytic languages from China and Southeast Asia: Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, and Khmer (which isn't tonal).
I've had good experiences traveling in China, Thailand, and Cambodia, so in that sense I'm well disposed towards the languages.
Mandarin would be really practical, given its size and importance. Also, I'm interested in Japanese and maybe Korean, and I generally prefer to follow the flow of vocabulary "downstream," learning classical languages before modern descendants and donors of loanwords before recipients. Given that preference, it would make sense to study some variety of Chinese, but I've opted for Japanese instead.
I think in general, I take a "gradualist" approach to learning new things. Paul Thomas Anderson (I believe paraphrasing another filmmaker) has likened screenwriting to ironing: "You move forward a little bit and go back and smooth things out." That's pretty much how I learn a given language and also how I take up new languages: venturing some ways into the unfamiliar, then circling back and consolidating, and then venturing out a little further than before. I imagine some folks here on the forum really enjoy learning a completely unfamiliar language without any bearings. I'd like to keep expanding and get there eventually, but I prefer to work my way up to it. Especially since I'm attempting to learn lots of languages concurrently, and it helps if they're related (genetically or through significant borrowing) and reinforce one another.
I think this basic preference has made the languages of MSEA feel like they're still a bit out of reach in two ways, and perhaps not challenging enough in a third way. They're a bit out of reach in that almost all of the vocabulary would be new to me, and the tones would probably take me a while. At the same time, I enjoy morphology, and with highly analytic languages, I kind of miss it.
None of this is set in stone, however. When I was a beginner in Spanish, the verbal morphology seemed like unnecessary work. Then after a while it became automatic and flowing, and it seemed incredibly beautiful. I imagine the only reason I've never felt that way about a tonal-analytic language is that I've never become fluent in one. Every language has its delights.
Also, these preferences only really apply when I'm picking out a new linguistic puzzle to have fun figuring out. When I'm in a situation where learning a language will help me communicate with people around me, that takes priority. But often, as with Vietnamese and Burmese, that situation doesn't last forever, and then the linguistic puzzle aspect becomes important again.
Actually, out of all the MSEA languages I've looked at, Burmese is probably the best fit for me at the moment.
With respect to vocabulary, it's as close to a bridge language as I'll find, since it borrowed extensively from Sanskrit and Pali, and it's genetically related, albeit somewhat distantly, to Chinese.
The phonemic inventory appeals to me. It includes several voiceless sonorants, which are fun, and two sounds that are hard to pin down. They're transcribed [θ] and [sʰ] in the Wikipedia entry, but as the first two phonetic notes explain, they're more particular than that. (The first sound is the key to pronouncing the Burmese word for "vegetarian," so I got a lot of practice with that one.)
I wouldn't say I mastered the tones or anything, but I didn't feel like they were holding me up. And there are some interactions between tone and other aspects of phonology that I find interesting. For example, the voiceless sonorants are quite subtle, and the Wikipedia entry says (in the third-to-last paragraph of the section on tones) that the distinction has largely passed from the consonant to the vowel, with the vowel following a voiceless sonorant being breathy or higher pitched. It could be a tone split in progress. I didn't know to listen for that when I was there and can't verify (and there's no citation on Wikipedia), but it's certainly interesting.
And while Burmese is largely analytic and most words are monosyllabic, I don't feel like I'm just putting one syllable after another, like laying bricks. There are minor syllables, and the two syllable-final consonants assimilate to the following consonant. One is a placeless nasal, and the other is a glottal stop before a pause, but if it comes before another consonant, then the consonant becomes geminate. (There are parallels to Japanese.)
And there's a certain amount of derivational morphology. For example, if you take an adjective-verb ("to be sweet," "to be spicy") and put an [ə] sound in front of it, you get the corresponding noun: "sweetness," "spiciness," or maybe "sweet thing," "spicy thing."
Finally, as long as I'm listing things I like, I'll throw in a cool bit of grammaticalization: the word meaning "to stay" or "to live, to dwell" is also a verb particle indicating that an action in progress.
All that, and I have friends living in Myanmar, and I found Burmese people really lovely.
I would definitely keep studying Burmese if I was living in Myanmar, and I'm pretty sure I would keep studying it outside Myanmar if there was an Assimil course. But it's challenging enough that I don't think I'd enjoy studying it outside Myanmar with the resources that are currently available (even though, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Okell and Mesher courses seem quite good).
As for other tonal languages, now that I've gotten interested in tone as a linguistic phenomenon, I wouldn't be surprised if I ended up having another go at a tonal language before too long.