[Lingtyp] word for "pitch" in languages across the world

Hajime Senuma hajime.senuma at gmail.com
Tue Mar 9 08:40:53 UTC 2021

Dear all,

I. Ainu
The Ainu language (language isolate in Japan, critically endangered)
has the term "sinotca" (lit. "style of play") for "melody" or "song".
It may include the notion of "pitch" in some cases, as in
"kuttomsinotca" (lit. "throat-song"/"throat-melody"), a male singing
style with a groaning low-pitched voice. Another pitch-related word is
"kanemay" ("to make a high-pitched sound like metals") that connotes
the sense of beauty (Ainu highly valued metals).

Ainu also has the high/low metaphorical scale to the pitch. In the
Chitose dialect, "kaye" (lit. "to bend (something)") means "to sing a
song with vibrato" in poetical contexts. "kaye" in this sense can be
further paraphrased as "riknakaye ranakaye" (lit. "to bend (the voice)
to a high place, to bend (the voice) to a low place").

II. Japanese
Classical Japanese had two words for "pitch": a native Japanese word
"shirabe" (調べ) and its Sino-Japanese counterpart "chōsi" (調子).
According to Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, "shirabe" was used for this sense
at least from 910s and "chōsi" from the end of the 10th century.

"Shirabe" is the nominalization of a verb "shirabu" (調ぶ). In the 10th
century, "shirabe"/"shirabu" had two senses: 1. "pitch"/"to tune (an
instrument)" and 2. "musical performance"/"to play (the instrument)".
It seems that the sense of 1 (early 10th c.) slightly predates 2 (late
10th c.).

If "shirabe" was truly monosemous at a certain point of the history
with the sense of "pitch" (perhaps late 9th-early 10th c.?), it can be
an exception to the rule that words for "pitch" is highly polysemous
in the world's languages. But extant Japanese documents in this period
are not necessarily abundant, so I can't say for sure.

"Chōsi" also uniquely denoted "pitch"/"(musical) temperament" (except
that it was also the name of a certain kind of traditional music)
until the 16th century when another sense was introduced. Unlike
"shirabe" that is used only in musical/poetical contexts, "chōsi" can
be used for describing other situations (such as the pitch of human
voices in conversations).

In this case, my guess is that "chōsi" is a Sino-Japanese word
borrowed from Chinese (Pinyin diàozi), so perhaps it sounded
authoritative/scientific to Japanese people in these periods, and the
original sense had been retained for centuries.

Nowadays, both words have become polysemous. "shirabe" in this sense
is archaic, "chōsi" is ok but less common. In the daily language of
Modern Japanese, the most common word for "pitch" is "picchi" (ピッチ), a
loan word from English "pitch" (while textbooks may use "onkō" (音高,
tone-height), probably the direct translation of Tonhöhe in German).

Curiously, similar to "shirabe" and "chosi", "picchi" soon became
polysemous. If one says "picchi o ageru" ("to increase one's pitch")
in non-musical/vocal contexts, it means "to pick up the pace". In this
case, the pitch might be used as a metaphor for frequency (not in the
math/physics sense but in the general sense), at least etymologically.
On the other hand, there is another possibility that the "frequency"
sense of Japanese "picchi" might be a variation of the "level" or
"intensity" sense of English "pitch".

For me, as a native speaker, I actually don't feel the direct
metaphorical relation between "frequency" (in the general sense) and
"pitch" in my mind (though I feel some weak indirect similarities,
since both high-pitched sounds and swift runners seem energetic and

Best wishes,

Hajime Senuma
PhD student in Computational Linguistics,
Aizawa Lab, University of Tokyo & National Institute of Informatics, Japan

On Mon, Mar 8, 2021 at 4:12 AM Adam James Ross Tallman
<ajrtallman at utexas.edu> wrote:
> No worries Juergen.  Actually, there might be a covert point in your slide that I overlooked. It seems that the word  is highly polysemous and context dependent and all the answers I've gotten so far have multiple meanings. Maybe there is a Chacobo word for it in the right context after all (perhaps we need recordings of elders teaching traditional songs to find the right equivalent rather than just eliciting the notion out of the blue).
> best,
> Adam
> On Sun, Mar 7, 2021 at 7:55 PM Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu> wrote:
>> Dear Adam — I definitely fall into the category of people you tried to discourage from replying :-) I couldn't resist because it just so happens that I routinely use pitch in my classes to illustrate how lexical meanings are built up from intersecting chains of metaphorical and metonymic extensions. I’m attaching a screenshot of the slide I use for this purpose. Sorry! — Juergen
>> On Mar 7, 2021, at 1:05 PM, Adam James Ross Tallman <ajrtallman at utexas.edu> wrote:
>> Hello everyone,
>> I'm wondering how many languages across the world have a word for "pitch". In a meeting the Chacobo once offered a novel word which roughly translated to 'speech's song', joi᷄ quëquëti᷄  but it likely wouldn't be understood without explanation(as far as I know!) and it's obviously not lexicalized.
>> I'm wondering what cultures/languages have lexicalized this notion?
>> best,
>> p.s. You probably don't have to respond to this if you are going to tell me that some Standard-Average-European language (for example) has a lexicalized word for pitch. Unless you can tell me something about how the notion may have arisen historically.
>> Adam
>> --
>> Adam J.R. Tallman
>> Post-doctoral Researcher
>> Friedrich Schiller Universität
>> Department of English Studies
>> _______________________________________________
>> Lingtyp mailing list
>> Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp
>> --
>> Juergen Bohnemeyer (He/Him)
>> Professor, Department of Linguistics
>> University at Buffalo
>> Office: 642 Baldy Hall, UB North Campus
>> Mailing address: 609 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260
>> Phone: (716) 645 0127
>> Fax: (716) 645 3825
>> Email: jb77 at buffalo.edu
>> Web: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jb77/
>> Office hours will be held by Zoom. Email me to schedule a call at any time. I will in addition hold Tu/Th 4-5pm open specifically for remote office hours.
>> There’s A Crack In Everything - That’s How The Light Gets In
>> (Leonard Cohen)
> --
> Adam J.R. Tallman
> Post-doctoral Researcher
> Friedrich Schiller Universität
> Department of English Studies
> _______________________________________________
> Lingtyp mailing list
> Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list