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]


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 (or larger minimal sets) exist between syllables with the same segmental features (consonants and vowels) but different tones.

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

The tone contours of Standard Chinese. In the convention for Chinese, 1 is low and 5 is high. The corresponding tone letters are ˥ ˧˥ ˨˩˦ ˥˩.
  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 with a slight fall (if there is no following syllable, it may start with a dip then rise to a high pitch): /à/ (pinyin ⟨ǎ⟩)
  4. A short, sharply falling tone, starting high and falling to the bottom of the speaker's vocal range: /â/ (pinyin ⟨à⟩)
  5. A neutral tone, with no specific contour, used on weak syllables; its pitch depends chiefly on the tone of the preceding syllable.

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

  1. (/) 'mother'
  2. (/) 'hemp'
  3. (/) 'horse'
  4. (/) 'scold'
  5. ma (/) (an interrogative particle)

These may be combined into the rather contrived sentence,

Pinyin: Māma mà mǎde má ma?
IPA /máma mâ màtə mǎ ma/
Translation: 'Is mom scolding the horse's hemp?'

A well-known tongue-twister in Standard Thai is:

IPA: /mǎi mài mâi mái/
Translation: 'Does new silk burn?'[3]

Vietnamese has its version: Bấy nay bây bày bảy bẫy bậy.

IPA: [ɓʌ̌i̯ nai̯ ɓʌi̯ ɓʌ̂i̯ ɓa᷉i̯ ɓʌ̌ˀi̯ ɓʌ̂ˀi̯]
Translation: 'All along you've set up the seven traps incorrectly!'

Cantonese has its version: 一人因一日引一刃一印而忍

Jyutping: jat1 jan4 jan1 jat1 jat6 jan5 jat1 jan6 jat1 jan3 ji4 jan2
Translation: A person why stay endured due to a day have introduced a knife and a print.

Tone is most frequently manifested on vowels, but in most tonal languages where voiced syllabic consonants occur they will bear tone as well. This is especially common with syllabic nasals, for example in many Bantu and Kru languages, but also occurs in Serbo-Croatian. It is also possible for lexically contrastive pitch (or tone) to span entire words or morphemes instead of manifesting on the syllable nucleus (vowels), which is the case in Punjabi.[4]

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


In a number of East Asian languages, tonal differences are closely intertwined with phonation differences. In Vietnamese, for example, the ngã and sắc tones are both high-rising but the former is distinguished by having glottalization in the middle. Similarly, the nặng and huyền tones are both low-falling, but the nặng tone is shorter and pronounced with creaky voice at the end, while the huyền tone is longer and often has breathy voice. In some languages, such as Burmese, pitch and phonation are so closely intertwined that the two are combined in a single phonological system, where neither can be considered without the other. The distinctions of such systems are termed registers. The tone register here shall not be confused with register tone described in the next section.

Phonation type

Gordon and Ladefoged established a continuum of phonation, where several types can be identified.[5]

Relationship with tone

Kuang identified two types of phonation: pitch-dependent and pitch-independent.[6] Contrast of tones has long been thought of as differences in pitch height. However, several studies pointed out that tone is actually multidimensional. Contour, duration, and phonation may all contribute to the differentiation of tones. Recent investigations using perceptual experiments seem to suggest phonation counts as a perceptual cue.[6][7][8]

Tone and pitch accent

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.[9]

Tone and intonation

Both lexical or grammatical tone and prosodic intonation are cued by changes in pitch, as well sometimes by changes in phonation. Lexical tone coexists with intonation, with the lexical changes of pitch like waves superimposed on larger swells. For example, Luksaneeyanawin (1993) describes three intonational patterns in Thai: falling (with semantics of "finality, closedness and definiteness"), rising ("non-finality, openness and non-definiteness") and "convoluted" (contrariness, conflict and emphasis). The phonetic realization of these intonational patterns superimposed on the five lexical tones of Thai (in citation form) are as follows:[10]

Tone plus intonation in Thai
High level tone ˦˥˦ ˥ ˦˥˨
Mid level tone ˧˨ ˦ ˧˦˨
Low level tone ˨˩ ˧ ˧˧˦
Falling tone ˦˧˨, ˦˦˨ ˦˦˧, ˥˥˦ ˦˥˨
Rising tone ˩˩˦ ˧˧˦ ˨˩˦

With convoluted intonation, it appears that high and falling tone conflate, while the low tone with convoluted intonation has the same contour as rising tone with falling intonation.

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, whereas marked syllables have high tone. In the related language Sekani, however, the default is high tone, and marked syllables have low tone.[11] There are parallels with stress: English stressed syllables have a higher pitch than unstressed syllables, whereas in Russian, stressed syllables have a lower pitch.

Other Languages
Bân-lâm-gú: Siaⁿ-tiāu
Cymraeg: Tôn (iaith)
français: Langue à tons
한국어: 성조
Kabɩyɛ: Liu
қазақша: Тонема
Lingua Franca Nova: Tono (fonolojia)
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