Tone Languages

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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.


References in periodicals archive ?
Tone languages and the universality of intrinsic F0: Evidence from Africa.
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.
Downdrift is widely used for statements, both in tone languages (see, among others, Lindau 1986 for Hausa; Rialland 1988, 1997 for Gulmancema, Ncam, and Bambara) and in nontonal languages (see Thorsen 1985 for Danish; Hirst and Di Cristo 1984 for French, etc.