Tone (linguistics)

Tone (linguistics)
Top tone

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High tone
Mid tone
Low tone
Bottom tone
Falling tone
High falling tone
Low falling tone
Rising tone
High rising tone
Low rising tone
Dipping tone
Peaking tone

Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning—that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information, and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called intonation, but not all languages use tones to distinguish words or their inflections, analogously to consonants and vowels. Such tonal phonemes are sometimes called tonemes.

In the most widely-spoken tonal language, Mandarin Chinese, tones are distinguished by their shape (contour) and pitch range (or register). Most syllables carry their own tone and many words are differentiated solely by tone. Moreover, tone plays little role in modern Chinese grammar, though the tones descend from features in Old Chinese that did have morphological significance. In many tonal African languages, such as most Bantu languages, however, tones are distinguished by their relative level, words are longer, there are fewer minimal tone pairs, and a single tone may be carried by the entire word, rather than a different tone on each syllable. Often grammatical information, such as past versus present, "I" versus "you", or positive versus negative, is conveyed solely by tone.

Many languages use tone in a more limited way. Somali, for example, may only have one high tone per word. In Japanese, fewer than half of the words have drop in pitch; words contrast according to which syllable this drop follows. Such minimal systems are sometimes called pitch accent, since they are reminiscent of stress accent languages which typically allow one principal stressed syllable per word. However, there is debate over the definition of pitch accent, and whether a coherent definition is even possible.


Tonal languages

Most languages of sub-Saharan Africa are tonal, notably excepting Swahili in the East, and Wolof and Fulani in the West. The Chadic, Omotic, and to some extent Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic are tonal—the Omotic languages heavily so—though their sister families of Semitic, Berber, and Egyptian are not.

There are numerous tonal languages in East Asia and South East Asia, including all the Chinese languages (though some such as Shanghainese are only marginally tonal), Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao. Some East Asian languages, such as Burmese, Korean, and Japanese have simpler tone systems, which are sometimes called 'register' or 'pitch accent' systems. However, some languages in the region are not tonal at all, including Mongolian, Khmer, and Malay. Of the Tibetan languages, Central Tibetan (including the dialect of the capital Lhasa) and Amdo Tibetan are tonal, while Khams Tibetan and Ladakhi are not.

Along with Lahnda and Western Pahari languages, Punjabi is unusual among modern Indo-European languages for being a tonal language.

Some of the native languages of North and South America are tonal, notably many of the Athabaskan languages of Alaska and the American Southwest (including Navajo), and especially the Oto-Manguean languages of Mexico. Among the Mayan languages, which are mostly non-tonal, Yucatec (with the largest number of speakers), Uspantek, and one dialect of Tzotzil have developed simple tone systems.

In Europe, Norwegian, Swedish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian, some dialects of Slovene, and Limburgish have simple tone systems generally characterized as pitch accent. Other Indo-European tonal languages, spoken in the Indian subcontinent, are Punjabi, Lahanda, Rabinian and Western Pahari.[1][2][3][4]

Languages that are tonal include:

  • Some of the Sino-Tibetan languages, including the numerically significant ones. Most forms of Chinese are strongly tonal (an exception being Shanghainese, where the system has collapsed to only a two-way contrast at the word level with some initial consonants, and no contrast at all with others); while some of the Tibetan languages, including the standard languages of Lhasa and Bhutan and Burmese, are more marginally tonal. However, Nepal Bhasa, the original language of Kathmandu, is non-tonal, as are several Tibetan dialects and many other Tibeto-Burman languages.
  • In the Austro-Asiatic family, Vietnamese and its closest relatives are strongly tonal. Other languages of this family, such as Mon, Khmer, and the Munda languages, are non-tonal.
  • The entire Tai-Kadai family, spoken mainly in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, is strongly tonal.
  • The entire Hmong–Mien family is strongly tonal.
  • Many Afroasiatic languages in the Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic families have register-tone systems, such as Chadic Hausa. Many of the Omotic tone systems are quite complex. However, many other languages in these families, such as the Cushitic language Somali, have minimal tone.
  • The vast majority of Niger–Congo languages, such as Ewe, Igbo, Lingala, Maninka, Yoruba, and the Zulu, have register-tone systems. The Kru languages have contour tones. Notable non-tonal Niger–Congo languages are Swahili, Fula, and Wolof.
  • Possibly all Nilo-Saharan languages have register-tone systems.
  • All Khoisan languages in southern Africa have contour-tone systems.
  • Slightly more than half of the Athabaskan languages, such as Navajo, have simple register-tone systems (languages in California, Oregon and a few in Alaska excluded), but the languages that have tone fall into two groups that are mirror images of each other. That is, a word which has a high tone in one language will have a cognate with a low tone in another, and vice versa.
  • Iroquoian languages are tonal, for example the Mohawk language has three tones.
  • All Oto-Manguean languages are tonal. Most have register-tone systems, some contour systems. These are perhaps the most complex tone systems in North America.
  • The Tanoan languages.
  • Scattered languages of the Amazon basin, usually with rather simple register-tone systems.
  • Scattered languages of New Guinea, usually with rather simple register-tone systems.
  • A few Indo-European languages, namely Ancient Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, Limburgish, Lithuanian, the West South Slavic languages (Slovene and Serbo-Croatian), Vedic Sanskrit, and Punjabi have limited word-tone systems which are sometimes called pitch accent or "tonal accents". Generally there can only be at most one tonic syllable per word of 2-5 different registers, as well as additional distinctive and non-distinctive pre- and post-tonic lengths.
  • Some European-based creole languages, such as Saramaccan and Papiamentu, have tone from their African substratum languages.

The vast majority of Austronesian languages are non-tonal, but a small number, for example Ma'ya (which also has lexical stress) have developed tone, and also the Tsat language has developed tone probably as a result of areal linguistic effects and contact with Chinese, Hlai/Li, and the other tonal languages of Hainan. No tonal language has been reported from Australia. In some cases it is difficult to determine whether a language is tonal. For example, the Ket language has been described as having up to eight tones by some investigators, as having four tones by others, but by some as having no tone at all. In cases such as these, the classification of a language as tonal may depend on the researcher's interpretation of what tone is. 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). It could be argued either that the tone is incidental to the phonation, in which case Burmese would not be phonemically tonal, or that the phonation is incidental to the tone, in which case it would be considered tonal. Something similar appears to be the case with Ket.

The most thoroughly tonal language is the 19th-century constructed language Solresol, which consists of only tone.


Most languages use pitch as intonation to convey prosody and pragmatics, but this does not make them tonal languages. In tonal languages, each syllable has an inherent pitch contour, and thus minimal pairs exist between syllables with the same segmental features but different tones.

Here is a minimal tone set from Mandarin Chinese, which has five tones, here transcribed by diacritics over the vowels:

  1. A high level tone: /á/ (pinyin ⟨ā⟩)
  2. A tone starting with mid pitch and rising to a high pitch: /ǎ/ (pinyin ⟨á⟩)
  3. A low tone which dips briefly before, if there is no following syllable, rising to a high pitch: /à/ (pinyin ⟨ǎ⟩)
  4. A sharply falling tone, starting high and falling to the bottom of the speaker's vocal range: /â/ (pinyin ⟨à⟩)
  5. A neutral tone, sometimes indicated by a dot (·) in Pinyin, has no specific contour; its pitch depends on the tones of the preceding and following syllables. Mandarin speakers refer to this tone as the "light tone" (simplified Chinese: 轻声; traditional Chinese: 輕聲; pinyin: qīng shēng), also called the "fifth tone", "zeroth tone", or "neutral tone". Note, however, that in Mandarin the occurrence of this tone on single syllable words is marginal, and furthermore it only occurs with grammatical syllables. In disyllabic words, there is a strong tendency in modern Mandarin for the second syllable to be pronounced with a light tone.

These tones combine with a syllable such as "ma" to produce different words. A minimal set based on "ma" are, in pinyin transcription,

  1. "mom"
  2. "hemp"
  3. "horse"
  4. "scold"
  5. ma (an interrogative particle)

These may be combined into the rather contrived sentence,

Pinyin: māma mà mǎ de má ma?
English: "Is mom scolding the horse's hemp?"

A well-known tongue-twister in the Thai language is:

IPA: /mǎi mài mâi mái/
"Does new silk burn?"[5]

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

Register tones and contour tones

Tone systems fall into two broad patterns: register tone systems and contour tone systems.

Most Chinese languages use contour tone systems, where the distinguishing feature of the tones are their shifts in pitch (that is, the pitch is a contour), such as rising, falling, dipping, or level. Most Bantu languages, on the other hand, have register tone systems, where the distinguishing feature is the relative difference between the pitches, such as high, mid, or low, rather than their shapes. In many register tone systems there is a default tone, usually low in a two-tone system or mid in a three-tone system, that is more common and less salient than other tones. There are also languages that combine register and contour tones, such as many Kru languages, where nouns are distinguished by contour tones and verbs by register. Others, such as Yoruba, have phonetic contours, but these can easily be analysed as sequences of register tones, with for example sequences of high–low /áà/ becoming falling [âː], and sequences of low–high /àá/ becoming rising [ǎː].

Falling tones tend to fall further than rising tones rise; high–low tones are common, whereas low–high tones are quite rare. A language with contour tones will also generally have as many or more falling tones than rising tones. However, exceptions are not unheard of; Mpi, for example, has three level and three rising tones, but no falling tones.

Lexical tones more complex than dipping (falling–rising) or peaking (rising–falling) are quite rare, perhaps nonexistent, though prosody may produce such effects. However, the Old Xiang dialect of Qiyang is reported to have two "double contour" lexical tones, high and low fall–rise–fall, or perhaps high falling – low falling and low falling – high falling: ˦˨˧˨ and ˨˩˦˨ (4232 and 2142).

Register languages

The term "register", when not used in the phrase "register tone", commonly indicates vowel phonation combined with tone in a single phonological system. Burmese, for example, is a register language, where differences in pitch are so intertwined with vowel phonation that neither can be considered without the other.

Tone terracing and tone sandhi

Tone terracing

Tones are realized as pitch only in a relative sense. 'High tone' and 'low tone' are only meaningful relative to the speaker's vocal range and in comparing one syllable to the next, rather than as a contrast of absolute pitch such as one finds in music. As a result, when one combines tone with sentence prosody, the absolute pitch of a high tone at the end of a prosodic unit may be lower than that of a low tone at the beginning of the unit, because of the universal tendency (in both tonal and non-tonal languages) for pitch to decrease with time in a process called downdrift.

Tones may affect each other just as consonants and vowels do. In many register-tone languages, low tones may cause a downstep in following high or mid tones; the effect is such that even while the low tones remain at the lower end of the speaker's vocal range (which is itself descending due to downdrift), the high tones drop incrementally like steps in a stairway or terraced rice fields, until finally the tones merge and the system has to be reset. This effect is called tone terracing.

Sometimes a tone may remain as the sole realization of a grammatical particle after the original consonant and vowel disappear, so it can only be heard by its effect on other tones. It may cause downstep, or it may combine with other tones to form contours. These are called floating tones.

Tone sandhi

In many contour-tone languages, one tone may affect the shape of an adjacent tone. The affected tone may become something new, a tone that only occurs in such situations, or it may be changed into a different existing tone. This is called tone sandhi. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, a dipping tone between two other tones is reduced to a simple low tone, which otherwise does not occur in Mandarin, whereas if two dipping tones occur in a row, the first becomes a rising tone, indistinguishable from other rising tones in the language. For example, the words 很 [xɤn˨˩˦] 'very' and 好 [xaʊ˨˩˦] 'good' produce the phrase 很好 [xɤn˧˥ xaʊ˨˩˦] 'very good'.

Word tones and syllable tones

Another difference between tonal languages is whether the tones apply independently to each syllable or to the word as a whole. In Cantonese, Thai, and to some extent the Kru languages, each syllable may have a tone, whereas in Shanghainese,[citation needed] the Scandinavian languages, and many Bantu languages, the contour of each tone operates at the word level. That is, a trisyllabic word in a three-tone syllable-tone language has many more tonal possibilities (3 × 3 × 3 = 27) than a monosyllabic word (3), but there is no such difference in a word-tone language. For example, Shanghainese has two contrastive tones no matter how many syllables are in a word.[citation needed] Many languages described as having pitch accent are word-tone languages.

Tone sandhi is an intermediate situation, as tones are carried by individual syllables, but affect each other so that they are not independent of each other. For example, a number of Mandarin suffixes and grammatical particles have what is called (when describing Mandarin) a "neutral" tone, which has no independent existence. If a syllable with a neutral tone is added to a syllable with a full tone, the pitch contour of the resulting word is entirely determined by that other syllable:

Realization of neutral tones in Mandarin
Tone in isolation Tone pattern with
added 'neutral tone'
Example Pinyin English meaning
high ˥ ˥.˨ 玻璃 bōli glass
rising ˧˥ ˧˥.˧ 伯伯 bóbo elder uncle
dipping ˨˩˦ ˨˩.˦ 喇叭 lǎba horn
falling ˥˩ ˥˩.˩ 兔子 tùzi rabbit

After high level and high rising tones, the neutral syllable has an independent pitch that looks like a mid-register tone – the default tone in most register-tone languages. However, after a falling tone it takes on a low pitch; the contour tone remains on the first syllable, but the pitch of the second syllable matches where the contour leaves off. And after a low-dipping tone, the contour spreads to the second syllable: the contour remains the same (˨˩˦) whether the word has one syllable or two. In other words, the tone is now the property of the word, not the syllable. Shanghainese has taken this pattern to its extreme, as the pitches of all syllables are determined by the tone before them, so that only the tone of the initial syllable of a word is distinctive.

Tonal polarity

Languages with simple tone systems or pitch accent may have one or two syllables specified for tone, with the rest of the word taking a default tone. Such languages differ in which tone is marked and which is the default. In Navajo, for example, syllables have a low tone by default, while marked syllables have high tone. In the related language Sekani, however, the default is high tone, and marked syllables have low tone.[6] There are parallels with stress: English stressed syllables have a higher pitch than unstressed syllables, whereas in Russian, stressed syllables have a lower pitch.

Uses of tone

In East Asia, tone is typically lexical. This is characteristic of heavily tonal languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Hmong. That is, tone is used to distinguish words which would otherwise be homonyms, rather than in the grammar, though some Yue Chinese dialects have minimal grammatical use of tone. (In Old Chinese, tones may have grammatical functions.) However, in many African languages, especially in the Niger–Congo family, tone is crucial to the grammar, with relatively little lexical use. In the Kru languages, a combination of these patterns is found: nouns tend to have complex tone systems reminiscent of East Asia, but are not much affected by grammatical inflections, whereas verbs tend to have simple tone systems of the type more typical of Africa, which are inflected to indicate tense and mood, person, and polarity, so that tone may be the only distinguishing feature between 'you went' and 'I won't go'. In colloquial Yoruba, especially when spoken quickly, vowels may assimilate to each other, and consonants elide, so that much of the lexical and grammatical information is carried by tone. In languages of West Africa such as Yoruba, people may even communicate with so-called "talking drums", which are modulated to imitate the tones of the language, or by whistling the tones of speech.

Phonetic notation

There are three main approaches to notating tones in phonetic descriptions of a language.

  • The easiest from a typological perspective is a numbering system, with the pitch levels assigned numerals, and each tone transcribed as a numeral or sequence of numerals. Such systems tend to be idiosyncratic, for example with high tone being assigned the numeral 1, 3, or 5, and so have not been adopted for the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  • Also simple for simple tone systems is a series of diacritics, such as ⟨ó⟩ for high tone and ⟨ò⟩ for low tone. This has been adopted by the IPA, but is not easy to adapt to complex contour tone systems (see under Chinese below for one work-around). The five IPA diacritics for level tones are ⟨ő ó ō ò ȍ⟩. These may be combined to form contour tones, ⟨ô ǒ o᷄ o᷅ o᷆ o᷇ o᷈ o᷉⟩, though font support is sparse. Sometimes a non-IPA vertical diacritic for a second, higher, mid tone is seen, ⟨o̍⟩, so that in a language with four (or six) level tones, they may be transcribed ⟨ó o̍ ō ò⟩.
  • The most flexible system is that of tone letters, which are iconic schematics of the pitch trace of the tone in question. They are most commonly used for complex contour systems, as in Liberia and southern China.


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 á
Mid tone macron ā
Low tone grave à

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., (High), ma (Mid), (Low). Similarly, in some two-tone languages, only one tone is marked explicitly.

With more complex tonal systems, such as in the Kru and Omotic languages, it is usual to indicate tone with numbers, with 1 for HIGH and 4 or 5 for LOW in Kru, but 1 for LOW and 5 for HIGH in Omotic. Contour tones are then indicated 14, 21, etc.


In the Chinese tradition, numerals are assigned to various tones (see Tone number). For instance, Standard Chinese has four lexically contrastive tones, and the numerals 1, 2, 3, and 4 are assigned to four tones. Syllables can sometimes be toneless and are described as having a neutral tone, typically indicated by omitting tone markings. Chinese dialects are traditionally described in terms of four tonal categories ping 'level', shang 'rising', qu 'exiting', ru 'entering', based on the traditional analysis of Middle Chinese (see Four tones); note that these are not at all the same as the four tones of modern standard Mandarin.[7] Depending on the dialect, each of these categories may then be divided into two tones, typically called yin and yang. Syllables carrying the ru tones are closed by voiceless stops in all Chinese dialects, so that ru is not a tonal category in the sense used by Western linguistics, but rather a category of syllable structures. Chinese phonologists perceived these checked syllables as having concomitant short tones, justifying them as a tonal category. During the period of Middle Chinese, when the tonal categories were established, the shang and qu tones also had characteristic final obstruents with concomitant tonic differences, whereas syllables bearing the ping tone ended in a simple sonorant. An alternate to using the Chinese category names is to assign to each category a numeral ranging from 1–8, or sometimes higher for dialects with additional tone splits. It should be noted that syllables belonging to the same tone category differ drastically in actual phonetic tone across the Chinese dialects. For example, the yin ping tone is a high level tone in Beijing Mandarin, but a low level tone in Tianjin Mandarin.

More iconic systems are use tone numbers, or an equivalent set of graphic pictograms known as 'Chao tone letters'. These divide the pitch into five levels, with the lowest being assigned the value 1, and the highest the value 5. (This is the opposite of equivalent systems in Africa and the Americas.) The variation in pitch of a tone contour is notated as a string of two or three numbers. For instance, the four Mandarin tones are transcribed as follows (note that the tone letters will not display properly unless you have a compatible font installed):

Tones of Standard Chinese
High tone 55 ˥ (Tone 1)
Mid rising tone 35 ˧˥ (Tone 2)
Low dipping 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 doubling of the number is commonly used with level tones to distinguish them from tone numbers; tone 3 in Mandarin, for example, is not mid /3/. However, this is not necessary with tone letters, so /33/ = simple /˧/.

IPA diacritic notation is also sometimes seen for Chinese. One reason it is not more widespread is that only two contour tones, rising /ɔ̌/ and falling /ɔ̂/, are widely supported by IPA fonts, while several Chinese languages have more than one rising or falling tone. One common work-around is to retain standard IPA /ɔ̌/ and /ɔ̂/ for high-rising (/35/) and high-falling (/53/) tones, and to use the subscript diacritics /ɔ̗/ and /ɔ̖/ for low-rising (/13/) and low-falling (/31/) tones.

The Thai language has five tones: high, mid, low, rising and falling. The Thai written script is an alphasyllabary which specifies the tone unambiguously. Tone is indicated by an interaction of the initial consonant of a syllable, the vowel, the final consonant (if present), and sometimes a tone mark. A particular tone mark may denote different tones depending on the initial consonant.

Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, and the 6 tones are marked by diacritics above or below a certain vowel of each syllable. In many words that end in diphthongs, however, exactly which vowel is marked is still debatable. Notation for Vietnamese tones are as follows:

Tones of northern Vietnamese
Name Contour Diacritic Example
ngang mid level, ˧ not marked a
huyền low falling, ˨˩ grave accent à
sắc high rising, ˧˥ acute accent á
hỏi dipping, ˧˩˧ hook
ngã creaky rising, ˧˥ˀ tilde ã
nặng creaky falling, ˧ˀ dot below

The Latin-based Hmong and Iu Mien alphabets use full letters for tones. In Hmong, one of the eight tones (the ˧ tone) is left unwritten, while the other seven are indicated by the letters b, m, d, j, v, s, g at the end of the syllable. Since Hmong has no phonemic syllable-final consonants, there is no ambiguity. This system enables Hmong speakers to type their language with an ordinary Latin-letter typewriter without having to resort to diacritics. In the Iu Mien, the letters v, c, h, x, z indicate tones but, unlike Hmong, it also has final consonants written before the tone.


Several North American languages have tone, one of which is Oklahoma Cherokee, said to be the most musical of the Iroquoian languages.[citation needed] Cherokee has six tones (1 low, 2 medium, 3 high, 4 very high, 23 rising and 32 falling).

In Mesoamericanist linguistics, /1/ stands for High tone and /5/ stands for Low tone, except in Oto-Manguean languages, where /1/ may be Low tone and /3/ High tone. It is also common to see acute accents for high tone and grave accents for low tone and combinations of these for contour tones. Several popular orthographies use ⟨j⟩ or ⟨h⟩ after a vowel to indicate low tone.

Southern Athabascan languages that include the Navajo and Apache languages are tonal, and are analyzed as having 2 tones, high and low. One variety of Hopi has developed tone, as has the Cheyenne language.

The Mesoamerican language stock called Oto-Manguean is famously tonal and is the largest language family in Mesoamerica, containing languages including Zapotec, Mixtec, and Otomí, some of which have as many as 10 or more different tones (Chatino) and others only two (Matlatzinca and Chichimeca Jonaz). Other languages in Mesoamerica that have tones are Huichol, Yukatek Maya, Tzotzil Maya of San Bartolo and Uspantec Maya (Quiché of Uspantán), and one variety of Huave.

A number of languages of South America are tonal. For example, various analyses of the Pirahã language describe either two or three tones. The Ticuna language isolate is exceptional for having five level tones (the only other languages to have such a system are the Trique language and the Usila dialect of Chinantec (both Oto-Manguean languages of Mexico).


Both Swedish and Norwegian have simple word tone systems, often called pitch accent, that only appears in words of two or more syllables. Each word has a mandatory tone, though which varies by dialect. Words whose pronunciation differs only in tone are frequently morphologically unrelated, and may be spelled differently, as in the Norwegian 'bønder' ("farmers") and 'bønner' ("prayers"). The two word tones are called toneme 1 and toneme 2 in Norway and acute accent and grave accent in Sweden.

In Limburgish tones can also occur in words of one syllable: dáág (one day), dààg (several days).

Practical orthographies

In practical alphabetic orthographies, a number of approaches are used. Diacritics are common, as in pinyin, though these tend to be omitted.[8] Thai uses a combination of redundant consonants and diacritics. Tone letters may also be used, for example in Hmong RPA and several minority languages in China. Or tone may simply be ignored. This is possible even for highly tonal languages: for example, the Chinese navy has successfully used toneless pinyin in government telegraph communications for decades, and likewise Chinese reporters abroad may file their stories in toneless pinyin. Dungan, a variety of Mandarin spoken in Central Asia, has, since 1927, been written in orthographies that do not indicate tone.[8] Ndjuka, where tone is less important, ignores tone except for a negative marker. However, the reverse is also true: in the Congo, there have been complaints from readers that newspapers written in orthographies without tone marking are insufficiently legible.

Number of tones

Languages may distinguish up to five levels of pitch, though the Chori language of Nigeria is described as distinguishing six surface tone registers. Since tone contours may involve up to two shifts in pitch, there are theoretically 5 x 5 x 5 = 125 distinct tones for a language with five registers. However, the most that are actually used in a language is a tenth of that number.

Several Kam–Sui languages of southern China have nine tones, including contour tones, assuming that checked syllables are not counted as having additional tones, as they traditionally are in China. Preliminary work on the Wobe language of Liberia and Ivory Coast and the Chatino languages of southern Mexico suggests that some dialects may distinguish as many as fourteen tones, but many linguists have expressed doubts, believing that many of these will turn out to be sequences of tones or prosodic effects.

Tonal consonants

Tone is carried by the word or syllable, so syllabic consonants such as nasals and trills may bear tone. This is especially common with syllabic nasals, for example in many Bantu and Kru languages, but also occurs in Serbo-Croatian and Yorùbá.


Sound change and alternation


André-Georges Haudricourt established that Vietnamese tone originated in earlier consonantal contrasts, and suggested similar mechanisms for Chinese.[9] It is now widely held that Old Chinese did not have phonemically contrastive tone.[citation needed] The historical origin of tone is called tonogenesis, a term coined by James Matisoff. Tone is frequently an areal rather than a genealogical feature. That is, a language may acquire tones through bilingualism if influential neighboring languages are tonal, or if speakers of a tonal language shift to the language in question, and bring their tones with them. 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 1838.

Very often, tone arises as an effect of the loss or merger of consonants. (Such trace effects of disappeared tones or other sounds have been nicknamed Cheshirisation, after the lingering smile of the disappearing Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.) In a non-tonal language, voiced consonants commonly cause following vowels to be pronounced at a lower pitch than other consonants do. This is usually a minor phonetic detail of voicing. However, if consonant voicing is subsequently lost, that incidental pitch difference may be left over to carry the distinction that the voicing had carried, and thus becomes meaningful (phonemic).This is seen historically in Panjabi: the Panjabi murmured (voiced aspirate) consonants have disappeared, and left tone in their wake. If the murmured consonant was at the beginning of a word, it left behind a low tone; if at the end, a high tone. If there was no such consonant, the pitch was unaffected; however, the unaffected words are limited in pitch so as not to interfere with the low and high tones, and so has become a tone of its own: mid tone. The historical connection is so regular that Panjabi is still written as if it had murmured consonants, and tone is not marked: the written consonants tell the reader which tone to use.

Similarly, final fricatives or other consonants may phonetically affect the pitch of preceding vowels, and if they then weaken to /h/ and finally disappear completely, the difference in pitch, now a true difference in tone, carries on in their stead. This was the case with the Chinese languages: Two of the four tones of Middle Chinese, the "rising" and "departing" tones, arose as the Old Chinese final consonants /ʔ/ and /s/ → /h/ disappeared, while syllables that ended with neither of these consonants were interpreted as carrying the third tone, "even". Most dialects descending from Middle Chinese were further affected by a tone split, where each tone split in two depending on whether the initial consonant was voiced: Vowels following a voiced consonant (depressor consonant) acquired a lower tone as the voicing lost its distinctiveness.

The same changes affected many other languages in the same area, and at around the same time (AD 1000–1500). The tone split, for example, also occurred in Thai, Vietnamese, and the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan.

In general, voiced initial consonants lead to low tones, while vowels after aspirated consonants acquire a high tone. When final consonants are lost, a glottal stop tends to leave a preceding vowel with a high or rising tone (although glottalized vowels tend to be low tone, so if the glottal stop causes vowel glottalization, that will tend to leave behind a low vowel), whereas a final fricative tends to leave a preceding vowel with a low or falling tone. Vowel phonation also frequently develops into tone, as can be seen in the case of Burmese.

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 (including glottal stops) in the syllable coda 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. Syllables without glottalized codas developed the opposite tone—for example, high tone in Navajo and low tone in Slavey, due to contrast with the tone triggered by the glottalization. Other Athabascan languages, namely those in western Alaska (such as Koyukon) and the Pacific coast (such as Hupa), did not develop tone. Thus, the Proto-Athabascan word for "water" *tuː is toneless toː in Hupa, high-tone in Navajo, and low-tone in Slavey; while Proto-Athabascan *-ɢʊtʼ "knee" is toneless -ɢotʼ in Hupa, low-tone -ɡòd in Navajo, and high-tone -ɡóʔ in Slavey. Kingston (2005) provides a phonetic explanation for the opposite development of tone based on the two different ways of producing glottalized consonants with either (a) tense voice on the preceding vowel, which tends to produce a high F0, or (b) creaky voice, which tends to produce a low F0. Languages with "stiff" glottalized consonants and tense voice developed high tone on the preceding vowel and those with "slack" glottalized consonants with creaky voice developed low tone.

The Bantu languages also have "mirror" tone systems, where the languages in the northwest corner of the Bantu area have the opposite tones of other Bantu languages.

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] acquired a low tone, and this tone later extended to all vowels followed by a fricative.

In Mohawk, a glottal stop can disappear in a combination of morphemes, leaving behind a long falling tone. Note that this has the reverse effect of the postulated rising tone in Mandarin derived from a lost final glottal stop.

See also


  • Bao, Zhiming. (1999). The structure of tone. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-511880-4.
  • Chen, Matthew Y. 2000. Tone Sandhi: patterns across Chinese dialects. Cambridge, England: CUP ISBN 0-521-65272-3
  • Clements, George N.; Goldsmith, John (eds.) (1984) Autosegmental Studies in Bantu Tone. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyer.
  • Fromkin, Victoria A. (ed.). (1978). Tone: A linguistic survey. New York: Academic Press.
  • Halle, Morris; & Stevens, Kenneth. (1971). A note on laryngeal features. Quarterly progress report 101. MIT.
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges. (1954). De l'origine des tons en vietnamien. Journal Asiatique, 242: 69-82.
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges. (1961). Bipartition et tripartition des systèmes de tons dans quelques langues d'Extrême-Orient. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, 56: 163-180.
  • Hombert, Jean-Marie; Ohala, John J.; Ewan, William G. (1979). "Phonetic explanations for the development of tones". Language 55 (1): 37–58. doi:10.2307/412518. JSTOR 412518. 
  • Hyman, Larry. 2007. There is no pitch-accent prototype. Paper presented at the 2007 LSA Meeting. Anaheim, CA.
  • Hyman, Larry. 2007. How (not) to do phonological typology: the case of pitch-accent. Berkeley, UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley Phonology Lab Annual Report: 654-685. Available online.
  • Kingston, John. (2005). The phonetics of Athabaskan tonogenesis. In S. Hargus & K. Rice (Eds.), Athabaskan prosody (pp. 137–184). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Maddieson, Ian. (1978). Universals of tone. In J. H. Greenberg (Ed.), Universals of human language: Phonology (Vol. 2). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Michaud, Alexis. (2008). Tones and intonation: some current challenges. Proc. of 8th Int. Seminar on Speech Production (ISSP'08), Strasbourg, pp. 13–18. (Keynote lecture.) Available online.
  • Odden, David. (1995). Tone: African languages. In J. Goldsmith (Ed.), Handbook of phonological theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Pike, Kenneth L. (1948). Tone languages: A technique for determining the number and type of pitch contrasts in a language, with studies in tonemic substitution and fusion. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. (Reprinted 1972, ISBN 0-472-08734-7).
  • Wee, Lian-Hee (2008). "Phonological Patterns in the Englishes of Singapore and Hong Kong". World Englishes 27 (3/4): 480–501. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971X.2008.00580.x. 
  • Yip, Moira. (2002). Tone. Cambridge textbooks in linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77314-8 (hbk), ISBN 0-521-77445-4 (pbk).


  1. ^ Barbara Lust, James Gair. Lexical Anaphors and Pronouns in Selected South Asian Languages. Page 637. Walter de Gruyter, 1999. ISBN 9783110143881.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Phonemic Inventory of Punjabi
  4. ^ Geeti Sen. Crossing Boundaries. Orient Blackswan, 1997. ISBN 9788125013419. Page 132. Quote: "Possibly, Punjabi is the only major South Asian language that has this kind of tonal character. There does seem to have been some speculation among scholars about the possible origin of Punjabi's tone-language character but without any final and convincing answer."
  5. ^ Tones change over time, but may retain their original spelling. The Thai spelling of the final word in the tongue-twister, ⟨ไหม⟩, indicates a rising tone, but the word is now commonly pronounced with a high tone. Therefore a new spelling, มั้ย, is occasionally seen.
  6. ^ Kingston, John (2004). "The Phonetics of Athabaskan Tonogenesis". Athabaskan Prosody. John Benjamins Press. pp. 131–179. Retrieved 2008-11-14. 
  7. ^ Specifically, words that had the Middle Chinese ping (level) tone are now distributed over tones 1 and 2 in Mandarin, while the Middle Chinese shang (rising) and qu (exiting) tones have become Mandarin tones 3 and 4, respectively. Words with the former ru (entering) tone, meanwhile, have been distributed over all four tones.
  8. ^ a b Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform
  9. ^ The seminal references are two Haudricourt articles published in 1954 and 1961

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