Tone Languages

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tone Languages


languages with phonologically significant tones that differentiate lexical or grammatical meanings.

Tone languages are spoken in Southeast Asia (Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese), Africa (Nilotic, Kwa, Bantu), and North America (Mixtecan, Mazatec, Trique). In some tone languages, such as the Sino-Tibetan languages, tones have a primarily lexical significance. In other tone languages, tones may also express such grammatical distinctions as number or gender of nouns, tense, and negation. Examples in Duala (a Bantu language) are à màbòlà (“he gives”) and à mábòlà (“he gave”), and in Dinka (a Nilotic language), pány (“wall”) and pàny (“walls”).

In many tone languages, it is not certain whether there is a relationship between tones and word stress; in others, there are no reliable data on the presence and function of stress. Tone languages in which tone is an obligatory prosodic feature of the syllable are in contrast to intonation languages. In the latter, voiced distinctions of pitch are an element of intonation patterns. Such distinctions are not assigned to specific syllables and are not associated with lexical and grammatical meanings.


Pike, K. L. Tone Languages, 5th ed. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961.
Welmers, W. E. African Language Structures. Berkeley–Los Angeles–London, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Connell's (2002) study of four African tone languages: Ibibio, Kunama, Mambila and Dschang reveals the existence of IF0 for Ibibio, Kunama, and Dschang.
Since lexical accents (where they exist) and their sandhi, stress morphemes (where they exist, in non-tone languages and in tone languages), speech melodies (intonations) with their phonetics and grammar, and so on, have been consistently slighted in the writing traditions of the handful of cultures that became independently literate, their true structural centrality has remained suppressed, much to the detriment of insightful analysis.(2) One might do worse than start their rehabilitation with a humble question taken from the typology of scripts: is it likely that occasional attempts, whatever the incentive, to write the 'pitches' of intonations make occasional use of markings that normally record the 'pitches' of lexical accents?(3)
Examining data from tone languages as well as from English, Cabrera concludes that a single-tone is sufficient for intonation description (as seen before for tone languages by Pulleyblank 1986, for example), the evidence pointing to the low tone being redundant.
The flat structures in (3) and (4) have been motivated strongly by data from tone languages but still need to be evaluated with regard to intonation languages.
Intonation in tone languages: the phonetic implementation of tones in Yoruba.