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. 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 ) 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. Tones in Vietnamese and Utsul may result from heavy Chinese influence on both languages. There were tones in Middle Korean. 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 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), 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.
Languages that are tonal include:
- Over 50% of the Sino-Tibetan languages. All Sinitic languages (most prominently, the Chinese languages), some Tibetic languages, including the standard languages of Lhasa and Bhutan, and Burmese.
- In the Austroasiatic family, Vietnamese and other members of the Vietic languages family are strongly tonal. Other branches of this family, such as Mon, Khmer, and the Munda languages, are entirely non-tonal.
- Some of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian languages in New Caledonia (such as Paicî and Cèmuhî) and New Guinea (such as Mor, Ma'ya and Matbat) plus some of the Chamic languages such as Tsat in Hainan are tonal.
- The entire Kra–Dai family, spoken mainly in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, and including Thai and Lao is tonal.
- The entire Hmong–Mien family is highly tonal.
- Many Afroasiatic languages in the Chadic and Omotic branches have register tone systems, including Hausa. Omotic languages are an exception in having both contour and register tones. Some Cushitic languages also have tone systems.
- 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.
- Most Nilo-Saharan languages including Dinka and Luo have register tone systems.
- All Khoisan languages in southern Africa have contour tone systems; some languages like Sandawe have mixed tone systems like that of Cantonese.
- Slightly more than half of the Athabaskan languages, such as Navajo, have register tone systems (languages in California, Oregon and a few in Alaska excluded). The Athabaskan tone languages fall into two "mirror image" groups. 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 like Mohawk commonly have register tone; Oklahoma Cherokee has the most extensive tonal inventory, with six tones, of which four are contours. Here the correlation between contour tone and simple syllable structures is clearly shown; whereas Mohawk, with three register tones in stressed syllables only, permits a large number of consonant clusters, Cherokee phonotactics permit only syllables of the structure (s)(C)V.
- All Oto-Manguean languages are tonal. Most have register tone, though some have contour tones as well. In some cases, as with Mixtec, tone system variations between dialects are sufficiently great to cause mutual unintelligibility.
- Many languages of New Guinea like Siane possess register tone systems.
- Some Indo-European languages as well as others possess what is termed pitch accent, where only the stressed syllable of a word can have different contour tones; these are not always considered to be cases of tone language.
- Some European-based creole languages, such as Saramaccan and Papiamento, have tone from their African substratum languages.
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.