Phonemes, Tonemes, and Chronemes – The Spoken Word as Music

Some people are naturally born as great speakers. The speaker’s life experiences and passion help sculpt his craft, but there is more to it than that. Words flow from their mouths like water over a fall. Music and the spoken word are closely related. The first instrument used to create music was, in fact, the voice.

So what exactly do all those rhyming words mean? Well, they are the most basic building blocks of spoken language, and they all have direct counterparts in the world of music.

A phoneme is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as “any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language. For example, the combinations of the letters CH, SH, TH, and EA are all phonemes. They are the building blocks that are used to construct words.

A toneme uses pitch within spoken language as a cue to the word’s meaning. English does not use tonemes, but many Asian and African languages do. I remember a time when I worked as a sushi chef at an Asian fusion restaurant. The Chinese owner was trying to explain to me the difference between the Chinese words “mao,” “mao,” and “mao.” At the time, I didn’t really understand, but now I realize it’s a relatively simple concept.

A chroneme uses the duration of a syllable to determine the meaning of the word. Once again, this isn’t used in the English language, but is fairly common among European languages, especially Latin. For example, the Italian word “vile” means “coward,” while “ville” means “villas.”

Do any of these sound familiar? Phonemes can be related to the idea of timbre. Timbre is the quality of the sound being produced. A flute sounds different from a violin, just the way CK sounds different from AT. When composing a piece of music, or even just playing guitar in a crappy garage band, the sounds we choose to make are an integral part of the music.

Tonemes coincide with musical pitch and its associated aspects of melody and harmony. Chronemes relate directly to rhythm, tempo, meter, and articulation. Without these things, there would pretty much be no such thing as music, not even percussion. It’s interesting to note that tonemes and chronemes are absent from the construction of words in English language, yet it’s pitch and rhythm that usually separate noise from music. They play a different role in the way we speak. Both the speed and which we talk and the tone of our voices are direct indicators of emotion. They provide context clues, setting the stage for the words that are spoken.

Do the structures of different languages reflect on the culture they arose from? Evolutionary musicology combines the psychological aspects of music with the theory of evolution. It includes vocal communication in all animal species (including humans), the evolution of human music, and universal standards in the world of music and verbal communication. Both music and the spoken word are indicators of the way people think, and give a great deal of insight into their respective cultures.


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