Tonal Language

A tonal language or tone language is one in which changes in pitch lead to changes in word meaning. Perhaps the best-known examples are the Chinese dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese, but in fact, many unrelated languages are tonal.

Some language groups that contain tonal languages include Sino-Tibetan (to which Chinese belongs: many Chinese dialects are tonal), Austro-Asiatic (which includes Vietnamese), the Indo-European (which includes Punjabi), the Bantu languages (most languages in Sub-Saharan Africa are Bantu) and the Khoisan languages. Many other languages use tone to convey grammatical structure or emphasis (see phonology), but this does not make them tonal languages in this sense. In tonal languages, the tone is an integral part of a word; minimal pairs exist in the language distinguished only by a change of tone.

To illustrate how tone can affect meaning, let us look at the following example from Mandarin, which has five tones:

  • 1 is a long, high level tone.
  • 2 starts at normal pitch and rises to the pitch of tone 1.
  • 3 is a low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the starting level of tone 2.
  • 4 is a sharply falling tone, starting at the height of tone 1 and falling to somewhere below tone 2's onset.
  • . (dot) or 5 is a neutral tone, with no specific contour; the actual pitch expressed is directly influenced by the tones of the preceding and following syllables.
These tones can lead to one syllable, "ma" having five meanings, depending on the tone associated with it, so that "ma1 ma5" glosses as "mother", "ma2" as "hemp", "ma3" as "horse", "ma4" as "scold", and "ma5" at the end of a sentence acts as an interrogative particle. This differentiation in tone allows a speaker to create the (not entirely grammatical) sentence "ma1 ma5 ma4 ma3 de5 ma2 ma5?", or "Is Mother scolding the horse's hemp?" (Māma mà mǎ de má ma? 妈妈骂马的麻吗?), where the series of "ma"s are differentiated in meaning only by their tone.

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

Tonal languages fall into two broad categories: register and contour systems. Mandarin and its close relatives have contour systems, where differences are made not based on absolute pitch, but on shifts in relative pitch in a word. Register systems are found in Bantu languages, which more typically seem to have 2 or 3 tones with specific relative pitches assigned to them, with a high tone and a low tone being the most common (plus a middle tone for languages that have a third pitch).

Please note that the word "pitch" is used loosely here, to refer to the comparative "difference" between a high pitch and a low pitch from one syllable to the next, rather than a contrast of absolute pitches such as one finds in music. As a result, when one combines tone with sentence contours, the musical pitch of a high tone at the beginning of a question may actually be lower than the musical pitch of a low-tone word at the end of the question, because the "average" pitch between the high and low tones rises (and falls) along with the overall pitch contour of the sentence.

Tone Contours

A convenient notation attributed to the Chinese linguist Yuenren Chao where the pitch is split into five levels, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The lowest pitch is 1, and the highest pitch being 5. The variation in pitch can be described as a string of numbers, for instance for Mandarin

  • Tone 1 /55/ high level tone
  • Tone 2 /35/ mid rising tone
  • Tone 3 /213/ low falling rising tone
  • Tone 4 /51/ high falling tone
A mid-level tone would be indicated by /33/, a low level tone /11/, etc. These series of numbers are thus called "tone contours".

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.

See also: Tone Name