Tone (linguistics)

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Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish words. All languages use intonation to express emphasis, emotion, or other such nuances, but not every language uses tone to distinguish meaning. When this occurs, tones are equally important and essential as phonemes (discrete speech sounds, for example, /t/, or /d/), and they are referred to as tonemes.

Languages that make use of tonemes are called tonal languages. The majority of the languages in the world are tonal. Most Indo-European languages, which include some of the most widely-spoken languages in the world today, are not tonal.


Tonal languages

Languages that are tonal include:

The Austronesian languages are non-tonal, and no tonal language has been reported from Australia. In other cases we don't know. For example, the Ket language has been described as having up to eight tones by some investigators, but no tone at all by others. In other cases, the classification of a language as tonal is subject to interpretation. For instance, the Burmese language has phonetic tone, but each of its three tones is accompanied by a distinctive phonation (creaky, murmured, or plain vowels), and it could be argued either that the tone is incidental to the phonation, or vice versa.

Some Indo-European are usually characterized as tonal, such as Lithuanian, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Limburgian, Swedish and Norwegian, but they are in fact pitch accent languages or at best marginally tonal. (The same is true of some dialects of Korean, Japanese, and Ainu.) However, Punjabi is a true tone language where the tones arose as a reinterpretation of a consonant series in terms of pitch.

Origin of tone

Tone is frequently an areal rather than a genetic feature: that is, a language may acquire tones through bilingualism if influential neighboring languages are tonal, or if speakers of a tonal language switch to the language in question. For example it is generally accepted that tone spread to the Chinese languages through the influence of another language family, most likely Miao-Yao. In other cases tone may arise spontaneously, and surprisingly quickly: The dialect of Cherokee in Oklahoma has tone, but the dialect in North Carolina does not, although they were only separated in the 1838.

An interesting question is how tones arise in a language, i.e. tonogenesis. In the Chinese languages they arose as a reinterpretation of initial and final consonants. Something very similar happened in Vietnamese, probably under the influence of Tai-Kadai languages; note that Khmer, which is genetically related to Vietnamese, is not a tonal language. In many languages, phonation distinctions of initial consonants are lost, with vowels after voiced consonants acquiring a low tone, and vowels after aspirated consonants acquiring a high tone. When final consonants are lost, a glottal stop tends to leave a preceding vowel with a high tone (although glottalized vowels tend to be low tone), whereas a final fricative tends to leave a preceding vowel with a low or falling tone. Vowel phonation frequently develops into tone, as in the case of Burmese.

Three Algonquian languages developed tone independently of each other and of neighboring languages: Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kickapoo. In Cheyenne, tone arose via vowel contraction; the long vowels of Proto-Algonquian contracted into high-pitched vowels in Cheyenne, while the short vowels became low-pitched. In Kickapoo, a vowel with a following [h] became low tone, and this tone later extended to all vowels followed by a fricative.

Tone arose in the Athabascan languages at least twice, in a patchwork of two systems. In some languages, such as Navajo, syllables with glottalized consonants developed low tones, whereas in others, such as Slavey, they developed high tones, so that the two tonal systems are almost mirror images of each other. Other Athabascan languages, namely those in western Alaska (such as Koyukon) and the Pacific coast (such as Hupa), did not develop tone. Thus the Athabascan word for water varies from toneless to and .

Tone as a distinguishing feature

Most languages use intonation (that is, pitch) to convey grammatical structure or emphasis (see phonology), but this does not make them tonal languages in this sense. In these cases, tones can change how the audience is intended to interpret a word (e.g. sarcastically), but in tonal languages, the tone is an integral part of a word itself. Thus minimal pairs can exist in such a language, distinguished only by a change of tone.

To illustrate how tone can affect meaning, let us look at the following example from Mandarin, which has five tones, which can be indicated by diacritics over vowels:

  1. A long, high level tone: ā
  2. Starts at normal pitch and rises to the pitch of tone 1:
  3. A low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the starting level of tone 2: ǎ
  4. A sharply falling tone, starting at the height of tone 1 and falling to somewhere below tone 2's onset:
  5. A neutral tone, sometimes indicated by a zero or a dot (·), which has no specific contour; the actual pitch expressed is directly influenced by the tones of the preceding and following syllables. Mandarin speakers refer to this tone as the "light tone" (輕聲).

These tones can lead to one syllable, e.g. "ma", having five meanings, depending on the tone associated with it, so that "mā" glosses as "mother", "m" as "hemp", "mǎ" as "horse", "m" as "scold", and toneless "ma" at the end of a sentence acts as an interrogative particle. This differentiation in tone allows a speaker to create the (not entirely grammatical) sentence:

Template:Ruby Template:Ruby Template:Ruby Template:Ruby Template:Ruby Template:Ruby Template:Ruby? (in traditional Chinese characters: "媽媽罵馬的麻嗎?")
"Is Mother scolding the horse's hemp?"

Tones can interact in complex ways through a process known as tone sandhi.

Register and contour tones

Tonal languages fall into two broad categories: register and contour systems. Mandarin and its close relatives have contour systems, where differences are made not based on absolute pitch, but on shifts in relative pitch in a word. Register systems are found in Bantu languages, which more typically seem to have 2 or 3 tones with specific relative pitches assigned to them, with a high tone and a low tone being the most common (plus a middle tone for languages that have a third pitch).

Please note that the word "pitch" is used loosely here, to refer to the comparative "difference" between a high pitch and a low pitch from one syllable to the next, rather than a contrast of absolute pitches such as one finds in music. As a result, when one combines tone with sentence contours, the musical pitch of a high tone at the beginning of a question may actually be lower than the musical pitch of a low-tone word at the end of the question, because the "average" pitch between the high and low tones rises (and falls) along with the overall pitch contour of the sentence.

Notational systems

Due to the fact that tonal languages are found all over the world, several systems to mark tone have developed independently. In Asian and Meso-american contexts, numerical systems are most common, whereas accent marks are used mainly in African contexts.


In African linguistics (as well as in many African orthographies), usually a set of accent marks is used to mark tone. The most common phonetic set (which is also included in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found below:

High tone acute accent
Mid tone level accent ā
Low tone grave accent

Several variations are found. In many three tone languages, it is common to mark High and Low tone as indicated above, but to omit marking of the Mid tone, e.g. m (High), ma (Mid), m (Low). Similarly, in some two tone languages, only one tone is marked explicitly.

A slightly different approach is to limit the number of digits to the actual number of level tones in a language. Thus, a three tone language could be marked tonally by use of the numbers 1, 2 and 3.


In the most common Chinese tradition, numbers are assigned to various tones. For instance, Standard Mandarin has four tones, so the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are generally assigned to each tone. However, the tones can also be described by tone contour numbers. A string of different numbers shows starting and ending pitches, so /35/ is a tone contour. The most common Chinese notation, known as the 'Chao tone letters' (Chao 1930), splits pitch into five levels: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The lowest pitch is 1, and the highest pitch 5. The variation in pitch can be described as a string of numbers, for instance, the four Mandarin tones can be described with the following contours:

High tone 55 (Tone 1)
Mid rising tone 35 (Tone 2)
Low falling rising tone 214 (Tone 3)
High falling tone 51 (Tone 4)

A mid-level tone would be indicated by /33/, a low level tone /11/, etc.

The Thai language has an alphabetic writing system, which gives complete information on the tone. Tone is defined by an interaction between the "class" of the initial consonant of a syllable and a possible "tone mark" above it. The same tone mark may denote a different tone, depending on the class of the consonant. There are five tones: high, mid, low, rising and falling.

The Hmong language has an interesting notational system for tones. The seven tones of Hmong are indicated by an orthographic consonant "letter" occurring at the end of the word. This ingenious system enabled Hmong speakers to type their language using an ordinary Roman-letter typewriter without having to resort to using diacritics.

The Japanese language does not use tones, but does use a system of pitch accent, so (ame) (rain) with falling pitch is distinguished from あめ(ame) (candy).

The Americas

In Meso-americanist linguistics, /1/ stands for High tone and /5/ stands for Low tone.



In Swedish and Norwegian, it is mostly used prosodically, but also to differentiate two-syllable words depending on their morphological structure. These accents are usually refered to as accent 1 and accent 2 or acute accent and grave accent respectively.

Tonal languages and music

How the tones of syllables are handled when a song is sung in a tonal language depends on the language, as it is generally governed by the respective culture's traditions. In Mandarin pop music (but not in traditional theatre such as Beijing opera), the tones are generally dropped, thereby making the song hard to understand and sometimes ambiguous without written lyrics. In Cantonese (and Taiwanese), it is generally attempted to construct the melody or the lyrics in such a way that they fit to each other (even in modern pop). Other tonal languages may have other customs. (Vietnamese folk and classical music also respect tonal contours.)

See also

fr:Langue tons ko:성조 언어 ms:Bahasa berasaskan nada nl:Toontaal ja:声調 pl:Język tonalny simple:Tone language fi:Tooni zh:聲調


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