Tone (linguistics)

The four main tones of Standard Mandarin, pronounced with the syllable ma.

Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words.[1] 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. Languages that do have this feature are called tonal languages; the distinctive tone patterns of such a language are sometimes called tonemes,[2] by analogy with phoneme. Tonal languages are common in East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas; as many as seventy percent of world languages may be tonal.[1]

In many tonal African languages, such as most Bantu languages, tones are distinguished by their pitch level relative to each other, known as a register tone system.[3] In multisyllable words, 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.

In the most widely spoken tonal language, Mandarin Chinese, tones are distinguished by their distinctive shape, known as contour, with each tone having a different internal pattern of rising and falling pitch.[4] Many words, especially monosyllabic ones, are differentiated solely by tone. In a multisyllabic word, each syllable often carries its own tone. Unlike in Bantu systems, tone plays little role in the grammar of modern standard Chinese, though the tones descend from features in Old Chinese that had morphological significance (such as changing a verb to a noun or vice versa).

Contour systems are typical of languages of the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, including Kra–Dai, Vietic and Sino-Tibetan languages. The Afroasiatic, Khoisan, Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in Africa are dominated by register systems.[5] Some languages combine both systems, such as Cantonese, which produces three varieties of contour tone at three different pitch levels,[6] and the Omotic (Afroasiatic) language Bench, which employs five level tones and one or two rising tones across levels.[7]

Many languages use tone in a more limited way. In Japanese, fewer than half of the words have a 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.[8]

List of tonal languages


Most languages of Sub-Saharan Africa are members of the Niger-Congo family, which is predominantly tonal; notable exceptions are Swahili (in the southeast), most languages spoken in the Senegambia (among them Wolof, Serer and Cangin languages), Koyra Chiini and Fulani. The Afroasiatic languages include both tonal (Chadic, Omotic) and nontonal (Semitic, Berber, Egyptian, and most Cushitic) branches.[9] All three Khoisan language families—Khoe, Kx'a and Tuu—are tonal.


Numerous tonal languages are widely spoken in China and Mainland Southeast Asia. Sino-Tibetan and Tai-Kadai languages are mostly tonal, including Thai, Lao, all the varieties of Chinese (though some, such as Shanghainese, are only marginally tonal[citation needed]) and Burmese with few exceptions such as Amdo Tibetan. The Hmong–Mien languages are some of the most tonal languages in the world, with as many as twelve phonemically distinct tones. Austroasiatic (such as Khmer and Mon) and Austronesian (such as Malay) languages are mostly non tonal with the rare exception of Austroasiatic languages like Vietnamese, and Austronesian languages like Cèmuhî and Utsul.[10] Tones in Vietnamese[11] and Utsul may result from heavy Chinese influence on both languages. There were tones in Middle Korean.[12][13][14] Other languages represented in the region, such as Mongolian, Uyghur, and Japanese belong to language families that do not contain any tonality as defined here. In South Asia, many Indo-Aryan languages have tonality, including many languages from the Northwest zone, like Punjabi, Dogri, and Lahnda[15][16][17][18] and many Bengali-Assamese languages such as Sylheti, Rohingya, Chittagonian and Chakma.


In Europe, Indo-European languages such as Swedish, Norwegian, Limburgish and Scots (Germanic languages), Serbo-Croatian and Slovene (Slavic languages), Lithuanian and Latvian (Baltic languages), have tonal characteristics.


Although the Austronesian language family has some tonal members such as New Caledonia's Cèmuhî language, no tonal languages have been discovered in Australia. Tone is also present in many Papuan languages.


A large number of North, South and Central American languages are tonal, including many of the Athabaskan languages of Alaska and the American Southwest (including Navajo),[19] and 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 tone systems. However, although tone systems have been recorded for many American languages, little theoretical work has been completed for the characterization of their tone systems. In different cases, Oto-Manguean tone languages in Mexico have been found to possess tone systems similar to both Asian and African tone languages.[20]


Languages that are tonal include:

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 19th-century constructed language Solresol can consist of only tone, although, unlike all natural tonal languages, Solresol's tone is absolute rather than relative and no tone sandhi occurs.

Other Languages
Bân-lâm-gú: Siaⁿ-tiāu
Cymraeg: Tôn (iaith)
français: Langue à tons
한국어: 성조
қазақша: Тонема
日本語: 声調
suomi: Tooni
українська: Тон (лінгвістика)
Tiếng Việt: Thanh điệu
吴语: 声调
粵語: 聲調
中文: 聲調