Thigh, Breast or Door? The Joys of Learning a Tonal Language

by Stacey

Hey, can you go close the thigh? Oh, I mean the…breast? Nope…the door…that’s it…the door!
How could we get these words so mixed up? Let us just tell you that they have the exact same consonants and vowels. And if they have the exact same consonants and vowels then they are the same word that has several different meanings…right?

We have now officially entered into the realm of tonal languages where meaning is differentiated not just by different vowels and consonants but also by the pitch of one’s voice. So (we think) “door” is said with a higher pitch where “breast” starts low and then goes to a high pitch on the second syllable. “Thigh” starts low and then the pitch drops off. And these changes in one’s voice determine what the word means.

Here, give it a shot and see if you can tell the difference:

Often our language partner will say (it seems) the exact same words twice and then tell us that they mean different things. We find ourselves doing a lot of smiling and nodding as well as praying that the Lord would help us hear the differences that seem so plain to them.
So we write this post both because we find it interesting (don’t you?) and also to ask our Christian friends to pray for us. Pray that we would HEAR the different tones. Pray that we would WRITE them accurately. Pray that when we SPEAK we would be understood.

Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.