Talk:Tone (linguistics)

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Great article, where are the footnotes?[edit]

This is an excellent article on a complex subject. Yet the editor(s) avoid the overuse of highly technical terms (disclosure: I've been studying linguistics since high school, that is more than 20 yrs). Impressive.

The one problem is:

Where are the footnotes?

I see a bibliography but no footnotes. An article like this should probably have a couple of dozen, if not more. Especially since it's probably the work of many hands.

So I'm going to drop a refimprove tag on it, but here on the discussion page so that it doesn't mar the otherwise informative and well-written piece.

PainMan (talk) 13:22, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

I added footnotes to the introduction, section 1 and section: "Uses of Tone" from the existing bibliography plus some other sources; the technical sections still require direct citations, and maybe some improvement to give more examples outside of 'typical' tone languages. Hornsteine (talk) 15:06, 24 April 2013 (UTC)

Tonal Languages[edit]

Please note: I'm not sure how my comment got mixed in with the discussion below it. For that matter I'm not sure how it ended up on top in the first place. In any event, I simply added a header to separate my comment from the long discussion it was mixed in with.

Absolutely NOTHING was changed in any editor's comments in any way, shape or form. PainMan (talk) 13:28, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

Bantu languages are tonal? Swahili is a Bantu language and is not tonal. Michael Hardy 01:16 Apr 13, 2003 (UTC)

Bantu? Is Swahili not a creole between Bantu languages, Somali, and Arabic? If so, it's varied features might make it tonal? Le Anh-Huy (talk) 07:15, 29 November 2007 (UTC)

Swahili is an ancient creole of a Bantu substrate with Afroasiatic superstrates; the substrate was probably tonal, but we would usually consider Swahili to be a Bantu language with a relatively well understood source of tone loss. Hornsteine (talk) 15:19, 24 April 2013 (UTC)

Oh. It said "contain". As Emily Litella would say ..... Michael Hardy 01:21 Apr 13, 2003 (UTC)

Isn't Norwegian also a tonal language? I'm not sure what that would imply for Swedish, Danish, Icelandic etc. I don't know if its language group is already covered mind... --KayEss 20:30, 29 Mar 2004 (UTC)

Norwegian and Swedish have prosodic tone patterns, but they do not lead to minimal pairs. Danish does not have this feature. — At least this is what I have been led to believe. — Hippietrail 00:11, 13 Jun 2004 (UTC)
The number of words that differ only in tone are not that many, but they do exist and the prosodic features are quite important. Most forms of Swedish feature this as well and they are refered to as accent 1 and accent 2 or acute or grave accent. Check out Swedish phonology for explanations and sound samples. Peter Isotalo 20:21, May 5, 2005 (UTC)
A minimal pair in Swedish is and "wild duck" + -en (definite article (which does not afflict the tonal pattern)) > anden with accent 1 versus ande "spirit" + -n (definite article) > anden with accent 2. As can be seen, minimal pairs only exist in two-syllable words.
In this case the contrast historically arose because of the definite article - earlier being a clitic word - becoming a suffix. Thus, accent 2 was once the pronunciation of a two-syllable word and accent 1 that of af one-syllable word.
Another type is verbs which at some point received an anaptyctic vowel /e/ before the present tense suffix /r/, thus also becoming two-syllable words retaining their one-syllable accent (1)
Depending on the analysis, the tones of Norwegian and Swedish can be described both as register tones and as contour tones. In standard Danish, accent 1 (originally a rising tone) has turned into a glottal approximant (for which no IPA sign exists) called stød, interrupting the vibration of the vocal cords. In Zealandic dialect it is a glottal stop.
However, the dialects of the islands of Langeland, Ærø, Tåsinge, Rømø, and Als and the peninsula of Sundeved (opposite Als) retain(ed) the original tones. Other dialects in the southern and eastern part of the country lost the distinction altogether. Curiously, these areas are between those with tones and those where it they turned into stød/non-stød. Any explanation is welcome.
Since the stød has become a feature of the syllable, and not of the word, Danish can also have minimal pairs in one-syllable words, eg. hun /hun/ "she" versus hund /hun1/ (1 here = stød) "dog".
Examples in two-syllable words: ånden /ˡɔnən/ "the breath" (from ånde+n) versus ånden /ˡɔn1ən/ "the spirit" (from ånd+en), or løber /ˡlø:bər/ "runner" versus løber /ˡlø:1bər/ "runs" (from anaptyptic vowel).
By the way, in a few northern dialects the stød may become oralised, becoming a /k/! Eg. on the island of Mors ny /ny:1/ "new" and ni /ni:1/ "nine" are (were) pronounced /nyk/ and /nik/. In parts of the nearby peninsula of Vendsyssel, because of palatalisation, it might even be /nytʃ/ and /nitʃ/. On Als, 350 km from there, it is still a tonal accent...
TPR —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:01, 12 December 2007 (UTC)

I'm not sure the 2nd paragraph captures what a tonal language is by mentioning minimal pairs. Under this definition, Japanese would be a tonal language - but it's not normally considered to be one. The word "hashi" can mean chopsticks, bridge, or edge, depending on which syllable if any carries the pitch stress. — Hippietrail 00:11, 13 Jun 2004 (UTC)

^Article edited to try and focus on tone language as opposed to accentual languages, citing the source "Tone", Moira Yip, 2002, which introduces her own discussion with that topic.Hornsteine (talk) 15:19, 24 April 2013 (UTC)

Punjabi is a tonal language? The article seems to point to this, yet I've never heard of this! Gokul 08:36, Jun 20, 2004 (UTC)

I first learned this fact in the book "Teach Yourself Punjabi". A quick Google search has turned up these words which have different meanings when pronounced with different tones:
  1. Kora (Horse) Kora (Whip) Kora (Leper)
  2. Ca (peep) Ca (enthusiasm) Ca (tea)
Hippietrail 00:32, 14 Jul 2004 (UTC)

I think this article needs to be more clear about the distinction between tonal and intonational languages. It also is too Mandarin-minded in its examples and in its description of tonal patterns and ortographies. I'll see if I can find some time to improve it (I'm more of an Africa-minded linguist), anyone who feels like it should do the same... (Strangeloop 18/08/2004)

^I agree that the article is sometimes confusing about exactly what sort of system is being discussed. I tried to edit some sections to improve this, but didn't get into it in the more technical sections where, as you say, it would be ideal to provide examples outside Mandarin for sure, and ideally even outside of the well-studied African languages--I lack the experience with American languages to provide this, but if someone does, they certainly represent a large and distinct class that's worth addressing specifically. Hornsteine (talk) 15:20, 24 April 2013 (UTC)


Giving examples of languages in language groups containing tonal languages, that (at least for some of the languages) aren't tonal themselves is extremely confusing. Maybe the examples should be replaced with tonal examples, or eliminated completly.

This article says that many Chinese dialects (some consider them different languages because some differ as much as say, Spanish and French; they are so different that southern Chinese often speak Mardarin with a Cantonese accent; I know they share a writing system, but so does Chinese Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese; but I digress) are tonal. But Sino-Tibetan has virtually no non-tonal members. Even the many dialects of Tibetan are tonal.

^It's true that Sino-Tibetan is dominated by tone languages, but it's therefore probably worth noting the few relatively populous members that are non-tonal, as in Khmer and Amdo. I tried to clear this up. Hornsteine (talk) 15:25, 24 April 2013 (UTC)

Also, Indo-European is mentioned twice. Someone should clear up the ambiguity.

I read somewhere that Vedic Sanscrit was tonal, but I'm not sure. This may deserve mention.

Vedic Sanskrit definitely was tonal, though not in the same way as Mandarin is. The Vedic tonal system is halfway between a music and a tonal language, since the relative pitch of the tones with respect to the 'base' tone is very important (this feature makes up a large portion of Indian music even today), but at the same time, the meaning of the word depends on the tone. I believe there is a mythological story which says that there was once a man who prayed that his son would kill the god Indra, but who got one tone wrong in the chant. As a result, his prayer essentially meant that his son would be killed by Indra, and this is what happened in the end. Classical Sanskrit does not use the tonal system of the Vedas, but the tones definitely have been preserved for many thousands of years. Gokul 05:04, Oct 12, 2004 (UTC)
Most outrageous comment ever: Southern Chinese speak Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. You are excluding 600 million people in Southern China! Cantonese is not the second-most spoken variety in China. -- (talk) 23:03, 17 September 2016 (UTC)


Perhaps something should be mentioned here about register languages where instead of pitch contour being the main cue, a combination of pitch, vowel quality, phonation type, vowel duration, etc. (i.e. a register complex) is the "tone" cue. Peace. - Ish ishwar 20:00, 2005 Mar 10 (UTC)

Things pulled out of the article[edit]

I pulled out the paragraph below. I think it has too much weasel words to be of any help to the article. The last part might be usable, but not under the heading 'tonal languages and music'.

It has been suggested that speakers of tonal languages are more likely to have absolute pitch than speakers of non-tonal languages. Speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages have been reported to speak a word in the same absolute pitch (within a quarter-tone) on various days. However, tone languages almost invariably use pitches relative to the speaker: in Doayo, for instance, the low tones of a female speaker can be the same absolute pitch as the high tones of a male speaker.

I also pulled out the link to The Hmong Language. It is already at Hmong and I don't see why it is particularly fit for this article. — mark 18:49, 19 Apr 2005 (UTC)

I removed the sentence "For example it is generally accepted that tone spread to the Chinese languages through the influence of another language family, most likely Miao-Yao." I believe the statements in the following paragraph, about Chinese acquiring tone through consonant effects on pitch, are more commonly believed, and they contradict this sentence. Also, while I have heard it claimed (by Jerry Edmondson) that Cantonese grammar has been strongly influenced by Southeast Asian languages due to extensive contact, Mandarin had little if any contact with Southeast Asian languages and so a contact explanation is unlikely for Mandarin tone. Finally, I think none of the references listed support this statement. I find it plausible that some languages acquired (or lost) tone due to contact, but I'm not aware of any examples--it would be good if someone could add references for this too. AwesomeTruffle 21:19, 31 January 2007 (UTC)

Systemic bias[edit]

This keeps being added to the category CSB by an anon editor. Is there a reason for this? I've removed it again in the meantime. KayEss | talk 05:36, 25 Apr 2005 (UTC)

It's because it's listed in the Linguistics section of the Open Tasks list of Wikiproject Countering Systemic Bias as needing attention. I don't think the categorization is a good idea, though. — mark 11:20, 25 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I agree the tag should be removed. Slapping such a tag on an article without a writing an explanation for it is tantamount to vandalism. Never have liked anonymous editors. How hard is it to make up a handle? I'm glad that bot that tags anon contribs is active. PainMan (talk) 13:30, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

Mandarin pop music[edit]

The article incorrectly states that Mandarin pop music drops tones. This is not the case. I speak Mandarin, and let me assure you that Mandarin spoken with incorrect tones is not just difficult to understand, it is nearly *impossible*. When I attended university in the US, we studied the use of meter (iambic pentameter, anyone?) in English poetry, whereby the author tends to structure the poem in such a way that stress of each word falls predictably, giving it a predictable rhythm. This is difficult to do in English (as opposed to languages with more predictable stress, like French), but any small child composing a song will find that he unconciously chooses words that "fit" with the song.

This is not difficult to understand for English speakers, but for some reason, they can't wrap their heads around tonal languages and music. I get asked by English speaking friends all the time how Chinese people manage to sing, given that our language is tonal. Doesn't it mess up the meaning?

The answer (as is found elsewhere in the article, in fact) is that 1) tone in music is different from tone in language, it is not absolute but rather relative and 2) in order for lyrics to "fit" the music, the tone contour of the word must match (or complement) the pitch changes in the song. English speakers intuitively understand that some words sound better in lyrics than others, but they apparently haven't taken the time to think about why that might be.

It *does* happen on occasion that a word is deliberately mispronounced or grammatical rules are deliberately broken to make a song sound better -- this in English is called "poetic license" if I recall correctly and I'm sure that all languages exhibit this occasionally. But to say that Mandarin pop music drops tones is simply incorrect, and I hope that someone will take my word for it and remove this bit of misinformation. I don't edit Wikipedia often and don't have time to defend my edits.

It is true that Mandarin pop music is different from Beijing opera, though, where the tones are deliberately lengthened and exaggerated -- in a certain sense, the tonality of the language *becomes* the music in Beijing Opera, whereas in pop music the language follows the tune.

Also need a paragraph on tone vs. intonation: The lexical tones are like ripples on a wave of intonation, that is, they're relative to a shifting baseline. This sounds difficult, but is surprisingly easy to pick up by ear, although it is true that many tone languages don't use contrastive intonation to the extent that English does. Anyway, it's a common question to wonder how you can have intonation if you use lexical tone. kwami 06:40, 24 September 2005 (UTC)
I came to think of Eminem's rap:
"No I'm not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley
to do black music so selfishly
and used it to get myself wealthy"
Poetic liberty for you! By the way, I read somewhere on the Zompist page that tones in Mandarin Chinese pop music often were omitted, and that it would often make the meaning difficult to understand.

I was planning to start a new section, but apparently there's a suitable one here already. So anyway. It seems to me that this section is just a long explanation of how Mandarin music does not ignore tones. What I'm interested in is how it actually does incorporate the tones. Music and language being two of my main areas of expertise (though I should say I'm not exactly an "expert" in the latter area), I can definitely say that my interest in this topic is not based on misunderstanding of concepts, as the text appears to assume.

On to my actual point. Once we've established that tones are not about absolute pitches, but melodic contour, are all the questions about music answered? No. The way I understand the text, writers of Mandarin language vocal music write the melody first, then a text that works tonally with the melody. I find this peculiar, and some further explanation of these practical things might be in order.

Also, unless I'm missing something, the comparison with stress in the English language, taking up a large portion of the section, seems to fall flat to the ground. Sure, English uses tonal variation to indicate stress, but in the area of music, this is of no importance. In fact, sung English doesn't appear to use any means of its own to indicate stress, instead hitching a ride on the rhythmic accents of the music. The comparison, therefore, doesn't really answer anything. And I already know how English language music deals with stress. What I want to know when I read this section is how Mandarin language music deals with tones, which is a completely different topic.

In summary, a lot of effort is spent on explaining things that are irrelevant, or based on a misunderstanding of what the issue actually is (maybe I'm overestimating people's musical and linguistic knowledge, but I doubt the idea that tones in Mandarin are absolute pitches is very widespread--the curiosity some, including me, might have can be more well-grounded), and too little is spent on explaining the interesting stuff.

Finally, my apologies if I sound a bit harsh. I don't mean to. EldKatt (Talk) 20:06, 13 October 2005 (UTC)

The unsigned user who started this section of the talk page seems to have explained it fairly well. Mandarin pop music fits the tonality of the lyrics into the tune in a way exactly analagous to how English lyrics "hitch a ride on the rhythmic accents of the music" for stress. This is just a different paradigm than a Western composer might be used to, but not an inconceivable one. I don't imagine there's any fixed order for composing tune vs. lyrics for Mandarin songs any more than there is for any other language. Why should there be? You wouldn't try to cram Mandarin lyrics into a tune that pulled them away from their natural tonality than you'd try to cram English lyrics into a rhythmic structure that pulled them away from their natural stress pattern. (Or at least not too badly.)
I suspect that there are times when this works better than others in Mandarin, but then this is true of Western music too. When I was younger I was importuned by my grandfather and father into joining them in a choir that sung Rusyn ethnic and church music. I was almost entirely innocent of the language, but the pronunciation was not difficult to pick up, perhaps due to a genetic predisposition, and the song sheets were generally written in "Latinitsa" and not Cyrillic which helped a lot. But when I'd try to speak, not sing, in the language based on what I picked up in the choir, I invariably got the stress wrong. It seemes that even the folk music of that language ignores stress completely when fitting words to music, and not only the church music where that might have been expected since there the words had to be fitted into a more or less fixed set of chant tunes.
The point of that digression being that if sometimes the tune clashes with the tonality of the lyrics in Mandarin pop music, there are Western analogues for that. TCC (talk) (contribs) 04:32, 25 October 2005 (UTC)
One difference that I spot instantly is that, presumably contrary to Mandarin writers' use of tone, English and other Western poets often (or usually, depending on who you ask) use metrical forms that determine the rhythm, even if you don't have any musical intentions. This is why, for instance, many German (and other Lutheran) chorale melodies can be sung with countless different texts, even if it wasn't intended, and why J.S. Bach and others could adapt entire cantatas to completely new texts that happened to fit with the rhythmical structure. Theoretically (but only theoretically!), I could set one of Shakespeare's sonnets to music, and I could use the same music for every other sonnet by Shakespeare, and countless others. Is there a similar system for tones in Mandarin poetry?
Frankly, the more I think about it, the less strange it seems. Still, though, it's a bit naive to assume (as I get the feeling the article text does) that only Westerners with great misunderstandings about how languages work and how music works could have any questions about this topic. So my major complaint, I believe, was and is that it spends lots of time on explaining basics, when there are more relevant things to say. EldKatt (Talk) 10:25, 25 October 2005 (UTC)
I agree with your last point. I have no idea where the writer of this section in the article got the idea that many Westerners think tonal languages use absolute pitches. You don't have to hear very much actual Mandarin (f'rinstance) being spoken to know this is untrue. I thought it was much better explained here on the talk page; or at any rate I didn't really get it either until I read the above explanation. I feel funny about editing the article myself though, as this is a subject I know very little about and it would be very easy for me to inadvertently add bad information. TCC (talk) (contribs) 21:04, 25 October 2005 (UTC)

Article split /Merge[edit]

I'm wondering about a split to this article. I've just been studying the phonology of Somali which is generally considered to be a pitch accent language. (I'll write it up on Wikipedia soon.) The word "tone" is commonly used in describing pitch accent languages. If that is correct usage, it would be useful to split this into a short article explaining "tone" which is relevant for both pitch accent and tonal languages, and a longer article on tonal languages. If this sounds right, please could someone do it. Otherwise there should at least be some reference to pitch accent in the introduction for clarification. Gailtb 08:11, 27 October 2005 (UTC)

Someone has written up an article on tonal languages. That article is a good start, but splitting the information on languages (as opposed to simply the concept of tone in linguistics) from this article into that one is far from complete. Tomertalk 01:53, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

A merge has now been suggested with tonal language. I think it's better to keep them separate because tone is a broader concept in Linguistics. (As we know, a lot of the info from this article would be better in the other one.) Gailtb 20:56, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

I concur wholeheartedly. The topics are different and should be treated separately. See Talk:Tonal language#Tone (linguistics). Tomertalk 23:15, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

I can't see how the two would be so crucially different, or where you guys are planning to draw the boundary. How tone is defined and used in linguistics is directly related to how we theorize about tonal languages. To me, making a difference in description of tone as a linguistic feature and languages which make use of this feature is like having an article on Languages having noun class systems next to Noun class, or having Languages making extensive use of ideophones next to Ideophone: it doesn't make sense. The link to Talk:Tonal language#Tone (linguistics) doesn't make it any clearer to me. Tomer or TShilo, could you elaborate? — mark 14:27, 15 February 2006 (UTC)

Well, I've jumped the gun a bit with a re-write to the intro earlier today, but the clear implication was that the concept of tone and tonemes was used in both "tonal languages" and pitch accent languages. Pitch accent was already a separate article so it seems logical to have a separate article on tonal languages. It seemed a bit biased to send pitch accent languages such as Somali off to a article separated from tone, but not to do so with "tonal languages" such as Chinese.

Or it may be that I've misunderstood. For example, the article says "However, many other languages, such as Cushitic Somali, have pitch-accent systems rather than tone." Is pitch accent not a form of tone? Or does "tonal languages" actually include pitch accent systems? I'm not an expert in this area, which is why I made the original suggestion on talk rather than changing the page, but we can't have it both ways! To my way of thinking, either we have separate pages for tone (linguistics), for tonal languages and for pitch accent languages, or else we have a single page which covers them all.

I hope that makes sense, but perhaps not! Gailtb 22:36, 15 February 2006 (UTC)

Gailtb pretty well covers my thoughts on the subject. Tomertalk 03:35, 1 March 2006 (UTC)
The arguments given to keep the articles separate seem quite subjective. That some linguists are hesitant about actually defining Limburgish or Croatian as tonal languages isn't the issue. The only thing that can be clearly determined is tone is more important in Vietnamese than in Norwegian. But as far as I know pitch accent is still a form of tone. The Scandinavian pitch accents are, for example, referred to as "tonal word accents".
I don't really see how the average reader would benefit from keeping two separate articles on the same basic topic.
Peter Isotalo 10:04, 5 December 2006 (UTC)
I support the merger.Maunus 10:51, 5 December 2006 (UTC)
Support al a Mark. If tone is indeed a broader concept then tonal languages can come under it in the same article, until it gets so long the list of tonal languages warrants a split. Bendž|Ť 07:51, 24 June 2007 (UTC)
Me too. The split is quite awkward, and there are now multiple tiny contradictions in the two articles (eg. Tone (linguistics) says Japanese is tonal, because it has a pitch accent, while Tonal languages says it's not, because it has "only" a pitch accent). Jpatokal 12:15, 4 July 2007 (UTC)

Unless evidence is provided that languages featuring pitch accent are not considered tonal languages by most linguists (something that the "Tonal language" article itself disclaims in its very first sentence, by stating that a tonal language is any that uses tone phonemically), I support a merger.

If such evidence is provided, on the other hand, I propose that a "Tonal language" article be kept, but only in the scope of explaining what a "tonal language" is in contrast with "pitch-accent languages" or other kinds of languages, not to cover mostly the same material as this article, like it currently does.

Finally, in case of a complete or partial merger, I suggest that content from the "Tonal language" article be only added to this article after verifying/adding citations, as it currently mostly lacks them for most of the statements it makes.

LjL (talk) 01:43, 16 June 2009 (UTC)

tone in Athabaskan[edit]

Hi Ish,

You say "most" Athabaskan languages have tone, but it's only about 60/40 per Mithun. People are usually most comfortably with "most" when it's about 85/15. How about "more than half"? kwami 08:02, 12 November 2005 (UTC)

ok. you're right, 24 out of 38 (or 37). shouldve counted. – ishwar  (speak) 08:47, 12 November 2005 (UTC)

Mandarin, four or five tones?[edit]

The article states in a section that Mandarin has five tones, as exemplified by "ma". I another section, it says that Mandarin has four tones. How many tones does Mandarin have?

It depends on your terminology. There are four 'main' tones, but some syllables are toneless (also called the 'neutral tone'), which makes five. Markyour words 20:03, 21 February 2006 (UTC)

Tonal languages and music[edit]

I've pulled out a lengthy section on tonal languages and music (see below) because it is unverified and looks a lot like original research. I think it can only be put back if all statements are referenced using reliable sources. Wikipedia's verifiability is precious. Additionally, the text would benefit from some cleanup and a good copyedit (the tone is too colloquial).mark 14:43, 16 August 2006 (UTC)


Speakers of non-tonal languages (such as English) often perceive tonality in musical terms, based on notes, when in fact it is based on tone contour. Tonal languages are relatively pitched, and not absolutely pitched. A listener interprets the tone of a syllable not based on the "note" in which it is "sung", but rather based on how the tonal contour of the syllable varies with respect to the base intonation of the utterance as a whole.

Because many speakers of non-tonal languages confuse musical tone with tone contour, it may be assumed (incorrectly) that a tonal language is incompatible with singing. If the word 'love', for example, must be pronounced as a B flat, how could one write a song that uses both the word 'love' and a corresponding note different from B flat?

While English is not a tonal language, it does incorporate tone. The canonical example is generally one that demonstrates the use of tone to confer the speaker's emotion or attitudes ("The blackboard's painted ORANGE?!" -- shock and surprise), but there is another, more subtle example that is worth considering, especially in the context of music: stress. English, like most Indo-European languages, is stress-based. The nature of stress varies between languages, but in the case of English, it could be thought of as variations in speech volume, vowel length, and most importantly, tonal contour, that serve to distinguish a particular syllable in a word as being the one that is "stressed". English is particularly interesting because it has phonemic stress: a change in a stress point can change the meaning of a word (record (noun) and record (verb) being a simple example). Careful attention to the pronunciation of such words and how they differ from each other will illustrate that a difference in intonational contour over the word is not a small part of what makes the words different. In this sense, English speakers have been incorporating tone as an aid in distinguishing certain pairs of words all their lives without knowing it.

This is important because no English speaker would ever suggest that "stress is dropped or ignored by English speaking singers to make their language compatible with music". It is, however, very common to hear this same assertion with regard to say, Mandarin pop music. As any speaker of Mandarin will tell you, the idea of Mandarin "with tones dropped" is as non-sensical as English "with stress dropped."

Just as English poets make use of meter to ensure that their poetry fits a particular rhythm, Chinese musicians choose lyrics that "fit" with the tune of the music. Sometimes (as is the case in Beijing opera), the intonation of individual syllables is exaggerated a great deal and music is composed to follow the intonation rather than the other way around, but this is rarely the case in popular music.


It is the opinion of others that tonal languages do certainly suffer an incompatability with modern, Western, popular melodies far removed from Traditional styles of their respective languages (ie Beijing Opera, Vietnamese Folk). Even native Chinese speakers can attest that the tones in most Mandarin or Cantonese music are completely distorted to fit the melody so that any congruence between music and language pitch is completely accidental or simply subconciously invented by the listener who can still make out the toneless words.

Designing the melody of the song around the tones of the language, although possible, is often cumbersome and the melody alone can be considered more important than the lyrics due to its potential for "catchiness" and easy memory recall (leading to overly metaphorical or simply nonsensical lyrics). Furthermore, it is popular to re-make English songs with Chinese vocals, in which case any argument for tone-matching is lost.

In the case of Chinese, online lyric sources such as Baidu are very popular, providing listeners with the unambigious Chinese characters for the song. Furthermore, any Chinese music video (or the music in opening/closing credits) is nearly guaranteed to have the corresponding Chinese character subtitles to read.

(end of pulled out sectionmark 14:43, 16 August 2006 (UTC)

The chinese example in the section "Tone as a distinguishing feature" is very confusing[edit]

I don't understand the example in Chinese, while I'm a native chinese speaker.

妈妈骂马的麻吗? (in traditional characters 媽媽罵馬的麻嗎?)

I suggest we should change it to an example which sounds in Chinese, not something with the all 5 tones but broken in Chinese.

--Natasha2006 03:50, 19 October 2007 (UTC)

Creaky rising tone?[edit]

Is the creaky rising tone, ngã (creaky rising), unique to Vietnamese? I noticed other tonal languages might have "dipping" or low-rising" tones, but I've never heard any other language with the creaky rising feature. Le Anh-Huy (talk) 07:13, 29 November 2007 (UTC)

Look at the section on Origin of Tone. Both creaky voice and rising tone frequently develop from a lost final glottal stop. kwami (talk) 19:11, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

voiced consonants?[edit]

Voiced nasals, fricatives, approximants and trills may have tone, though no existing language possesses tonal consonants.

What about for example Cantonese ng? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 16:10, 17 February 2008 (UTC)

Scope of title[edit]

I'm concerned that the title is arbitrarily defined in terms of lexical distinction, whereas far more languages use tone grammatically. Unsure how to fix this: has anyone an idea? I want to start an article on tone in English; I presume that one doesn't already exist. Tony (talk) 03:56, 18 March 2008 (UTC)

What you're talking about is intonation. There are a few examples of intonation in English on the intonation article already. In linguistic terminology, tone is used to refer to the use of pitch for lexical distinction; this is an accepted rather than an arbitrary definition. —Umofomia (talk) 04:20, 18 March 2008 (UTC)
The disjuncture arises in the opening statement, which highlights this category problem. On a related issue, I see that there has been a proposal to merge this with the "Tone (language)" article. I can't see why not ... Tony (talk) 07:38, 18 March 2008 (UTC)


Shouldn't this article be merged with Intonation (linguistics)? The concepts are virtually the same. Rsazevedo msg 16:50, 11 April 2008 (UTC)

No. They are completely different concepts. This would be like merging vowel and formant. kwami (talk) 17:16, 11 April 2008 (UTC)
Well, the articles certainly don't convey that difference in the concepts. They definitely need reworking then. Rsazevedo msg 17:41, 11 April 2008 (UTC)
Okay, I'll take a look. kwami (talk) 18:50, 11 April 2008 (UTC)
I would vote no, because tonal languages and register languages can use intonation, which is a different linguistic concept that isn't necessarily bound to words (i.e. intonation doesn't distinguish different words), but can be bound to an entire phrase. Although tonal languages may not use intonation to the same extent as intonation languages, such as French or Japanese, intonation has been reported in tonal languages such as Kinande and Chinese. The current article, Intonation (linguistics), could be expanded much more if it provided information on its uses in other languages than English. - Io Katai (talk) 23:01, 11 April 2008 (UTC)


I editted a section of this page yesterday and made it much cleaner. I fixed a bunch of run-on sentences and took out the "(e.g. sarcastic)" which was very unclear. Today it's all gone -- what gives? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 13:12, 6 June 2008 (UTC)


I tried following the link "F0" in this part, towards the bottom of the section on "Origin of tone": "[...]with either (a) accompaning tense voice (with high F0) or (b) creaky voice (with low F0) on the preceding vowel. " The link took me to a video game, which I'm pretty sure was not intended. Could somebody who knows the intent repair it? -- (talk) 23:56, 2 August 2008 (UTC)


This question may be a bit pedestrian among the preceeding academic text, but might the slang term "iono" (from "I don't know") be an example of tone in the English language? (talk) 18:08, 13 February 2009 (UTC)

It has a characteristic intonation, but the only time I'm aware of lexical tone in English is when an acronym is distinguished from a synonymous word, like the high tone on 'play' (Participate in the Lives of America's Youth) vs. 'play'. kwami (talk) 21:23, 13 February 2009 (UTC)

Old Chinese[edit]

The section entitled "Origin of tone" says that it is "well-established" that Old Chinese did not have tone, but provides no references. William Baxter 1992 "A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology" (which is in Google books) seems to be more equivocal about this. I can't get to all the relevant pages, but it sounds like it's not the open-and-shut case that this article seems to make it. In any case, a reference is needed to support this contention. Mcswell (talk) 03:53, 21 July 2009 (UTC)

text to merge[edit]

Given the broad consensus above, I've (crudely) merged some of the info from Tonal language. There is one long section which is mostly redundant to this article, but which may have some interesting tidbits or better phrasing than what we have here. I'm pasting it here in case anyone wishes to make use of it:

Tonal patterns vary widely across languages. In English, one or more syllables are given an accent, which can consist of a loud stress, a lengthened vowel, and a high pitch, or any combination of these. In tonal languages, the pitch accent must be present, but the others are optional.[citation needed] For example, in Czech and Hungarian, the first syllable of each word is stressed, but any syllable may be lengthened, and pitch is not used. In French, no syllable is stressed or lengthened, but the final syllable has higher pitch. Turkish similarly has high pitch on the last syllable, but also possesses length and possibly stress. None of these languages are considered tonal, and there is much discussion about how much prominence pitch must have in order to label a language tonal.
Many sub-Saharan languages (such as Hausa) have a scheme in which individual syllables in a word have a fixed pitch. High and low pitch are always permissible, and sometimes a middle level of pitch occurs as well. However, some are more complex. In Yoruba there are three pitches (high, low, and middle) and the meaning of a word is determined by the pitch on the vowels. For example, the word "owo" in Yoruba could mean "broom", "hand", or "respect" depending on how the vowels are pitched. Also, "you" (singular) in Yoruba is o in a middle pitch, while the word for "he, she, it" is o in a high pitch. Change of pitch is used in some African languages (such as Luo) for grammatical purposes, such as marking past tense.
Ancient Greek had a tonal pattern wherein, in isolated words, exactly one mora was high, and the others low. A short vowel formed a single mora, and therefore had only high or low tone, whereas a long vowel comprised two morae, and could therefore be low, or rising (from low to high), or falling (from high to low). Note that the scheme was more complex when words were grouped together, as they could form accentuation units with proclitic words at the start and enclitic words at the end, and such accentuation units could have multiple accents. By the start of the Middle Ages, this tonal accent system had been simplified to a stress accent system, but remained recorded in written Greek until the 1970s.
In the Japanese of Tokyo, tonal patterns are adapted to multi-syllable words. Every word must contain a single continuous chain of high pitched moras, beginning with either the first or second mora. Moras preceding and following this chain, if any, must be low. E.g., the city name Kyōto has tone KYOoto, with the pitch pattern high-low-low. The words for "chopstick", "edge" and "bridge" all have the consonant-vowel structure hashi, but the first has the pitch pattern high-low, the second low-high, while the third is also low-high but is followed by an obligatory low in the next word.
Tonal contours (rising, falling, or even more elaborate ones) are present in many languages, such as Thai, Vietnamese and the many Chinese dialects. In Standard Thai, every word has one of five associated contours: high even, middle even, low even, rising, or falling. Northern varieties of Vietnamese has six tones which utilise pitch contours as well as phonations: mid level, low falling, high rising, mid dipping-rising, high creaky-rising (which is absent in the South) and low falling constricted. Mandarin has four tones, similar to Thai's without the middle tone. Cantonese has at least 6 tonal contours: high even, middle even, middle rising, low even, low falling and low rising. Two of them (high even and middle rising) are often superimposed upon words with other tone contours to indicate emotional closeness or familiarity, in a manner parallel to the diminutive suffixes of many Romance and Slavic languages.

Debate over pitch accent[edit]

I agree that we don't want citations in the lead, but that doesn't mean that text in the lead should be backed up by sources - simply that it should summarize things that are mentioned, and sourced, later - and I don't see any further mention of 1) there being a debate about pitch vs tone 2) a coherent definition "not even being possible".

Especially the latter seems like an extremely bold claim that definitely needs strong sourcing. If sources aren't available, then it needs to be removed. --LjL (talk) 12:42, 9 September 2009 (UTC)

Sorry, I guess I haven't gotten around to that yet. It's on my to-do list. (Has been for a while, actually.) Some of the refs are at pitch accent. There's another editor here who's similarly convinced by the sources, and I've been rather hoping he'd take over. kwami (talk) 00:17, 10 September 2009 (UTC)

Removed passage[edit]

This might be worth including in the article somewhere, but it doesn't fit anywhere currently:

"A famous example of tone in Ancient Greek comes from Aristophanes' Frogs, where (l. 304) Aristophanes mentions an instance at a performance of Euripides' play Orestes, where an actor pronounced galḗn' horō "I see calm waters" with so much empathy that it came out galên horō "I see a frog""

"tone plays little role in modern Chinese grammar"[edit]

The current (2011-01-07) version says, "... tone plays little role in modern Chinese grammar." Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see how tone could play any role in Mandarin grammar, or at least no more than, say, "ch" versus "sh" could play a role in English grammar.Dratman (talk) 00:07, 8 January 2011 (UTC)

In some languages, grammatical functions are indicated through tone. In English, we change vowels for grammatical roles (man - men, sing - sang - sung); in many languages, tone plays a similar role. But not in Mandarin, where it is almost entirely lexical. — kwami (talk) 01:24, 15 April 2012 (UTC)
Actually, tone does play a role in Chinese grammar, but only a teeny tiny role. In ancient Chinese, a noun or an adjective can be changed into a verb by changing its tone. For example, "衣" means "clothes" if its tone is ping, but means "to dress" if its tone is "qu". But such inflection are very uncommon, and are even more uncommon in Mordern Chinese.
Also, if one syllyble loses its tone and becomes short and low, it may be a mark which means it's an affix or a function word.——三猎 (talk) 17:44, 20 October 2012 (UTC)
Tone does play a productive role in some Yue dialects. But nowhere do you get the kind of thing you see in Kru. — kwami (talk) 01:46, 21 October 2012 (UTC)
Kru? I'm sorry that you may need to use some easier words for my English is not that good. ——三猎 (talk) 11:37, 21 October 2012 (UTC)
Kru languages. — kwami (talk) 12:45, 21 October 2012 (UTC)

No sound files!?[edit]

This oversight seems exceedingly strange in an electronic multimedia encyclopedia. One of its chief advantages over a traditional print encyclopedia is the option to demonstrate concepts such as tone. Could someone add a couple of files showing minimal-pair distinctions in, say, an Asian tonal language and a sub-Saharan tonal language for the benefit of those of us with no exposure to these sounds? Lawikitejana (talk) 01:03, 15 April 2012 (UTC)


Example of low-rising tone in different browser fonts on OS X. The sans-serif font is Helvetica, the default for OS X web browsers.
Screenshot of "Tone letter" on Mac. Helvetica is Mac's default for Wikipedia's sans-serif. Same across all major browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera). Running OS X 10.8.3. It would show these correctly if they were forced to be Arial.
Windows screenshot of the same. Arial is the default sans-serif, so contour tone symbols are rendered correctly.

I've noticed that in some fonts, such as Arial, "ligatures" are formed for combinations of tone symbols, where-as with others (Helvetica) they are not. Helvetica is the default sans-serif font on Mac, and so becomes the default for rendering Wikipedia pages too. As such, Mac users miss out on the "ligature" versions of the symbols, meaning all the symbols from "Falling tone" onwards on this page all look very different when Tone (linguistics) is viewed on a Mac compared to PC.

Can we make sure we show both versions of the symbols somewhere, such as in the IPA infoboxes along the side of this article. I don't know if it's possible to change the font, but we could include SVGs? —Pengo 11:23, 8 May 2013 (UTC)

There are not two versions of the symbols. There are just fonts which support them and fonts which do not. If Mac browsers do not display them correctly, then we evidently need to modify the {{IPA}} template to support Macs. (I didn't realize Macintosh was as incompetent as IE. I'd always heard it was better.) The place to discuss this would be on the template talk page. — kwami (talk) 19:24, 8 May 2013 (UTC)
This isn't only an issue with Helvetica; it's also an issue with WebKit (maybe). They're displayed correctly in Firefox if I change the font to Arial, but not in Chrome or Safari. Anyway, maybe we should set the CSS font-family attribute to Arial for IPA. — Lfdder (talk) 19:38, 8 May 2013 (UTC)
You can force ligatures in WebKit with text-rendering: optimizeLegibility;. It works then. This is what I use now. — Lfdder (talk) 19:44, 8 May 2013 (UTC)
There really ought to be an image of the tone-letter sequences and the expected resulting ligatures. -- Evertype· 22:32, 18 March 2017 (UTC)


I am just noting this here that the section referencing tonemes citing Chen, CJ; et al (1997). "New Methods in Continuous Mandarin Speech Recognition". Proc. Eurospeech 3. is, in my opinion not citing linguistic theoretical literature, but rather citing a technical implementation of a theory. Argumentation and information decimation would be improved by citing the relevant theoretical literature. I don't have the sources with me at the moment, but I am leaving a note here to get feedback and consensus.

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Middle Korean used to be a tonal language[edit]

Middle Korean was tonal but Modern Korean dropped the tones.


Rajmaan (talk) 15:05, 15 October 2014 (UTC)

Separate "Tone (Linguistics)" and "Tonal Language"[edit]

I understand that the linguistic concept of tone is essential to understanding what a tonal language is, but I feel like these are different topics that deserve separate pages. It can hardly be said that what is common of tone in every language is common of tonal languages. Furthermore, I see a marked distinction between the use of tone in a language and a language that is (primarily) tonal. (talk) 16:42, 18 December 2015 (UTC)

External links modified[edit]

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Page Organization[edit]

I have to bring up that this page lists tonal languages first, before describing tone itself. Would it not make more sense to move this section somewhere else? CodeTriangle (talk) 21:58, 22 June 2017 (UTC)