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 ?
Intonation in tone languages: the phonetic implementation of tones in Yoruba.
In addition to the preceding observations, the study also observes that in tone languages, IF0 becomes neutralized in low tone environments.
For example, in line with the previous chapter, the review shows that speakers of tone languages process tone in the same hemisphere as the rest of the linguistic information (the left hemisphere), whereas this is not true for non-native tone perception.
In the subsection dealing with suprasegmentals Jensen makes casual reference to "tone" without saying what tone is, or what tone languages are.
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.