Tone (linguistics)

tonetonal languagetonestonaltone languagetonogenesistonal languagesword tonelexical tonepitch
Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words.wikipedia
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Mandarin Chinese

MandarinChineseMandarin dialects
In the most widely spoken tonal language, Mandarin Chinese, tones are distinguished by their distinctive shape, known as contour, with each tone having a different internal pattern of rising and falling pitch.
Most Mandarin varieties have four tones.

Prosody (linguistics)

prosodyprosodicsuprasegmental
Most languages use pitch as intonation to convey prosody and pragmatics, but this does not make them tonal languages.
In linguistics, prosody is concerned with those elements of speech that are not individual phonetic segments (vowels and consonants) but are properties of syllables and larger units of speech, including linguistic functions such as intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm.

Intonation (linguistics)

intonationintonationalintonations
Most languages use pitch as intonation to convey prosody and pragmatics, but this does not make them tonal languages. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called intonation, but not all languages use tones to distinguish words or their inflections, analogously to consonants and vowels.
In linguistics, intonation is variation in spoken pitch when used, not for distinguishing words as sememes (a concept known as tone), but, rather, for a range of other functions such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker, signalling the difference between statements and questions, and between different types of questions, focusing attention on important elements of the spoken message and also helping to regulate conversational interaction.

Tone sandhi

sandhitonal sandhi
Tones can interact in complex ways through a process known as tone sandhi.
Tone sandhi is a phonological change occurring in tonal languages, in which the tones assigned to individual words or morphemes change based on the pronunciation of adjacent words or morphemes.

Punjabi language

PunjabiPanjabiPunjabi-language
It is also possible for lexically contrastive pitch (or tone) to span entire words or morphemes instead of manifesting on the syllable nucleus (vowels), which is the case in Punjabi.
Punjabi is unusual among Indo-European languages in its use of lexical tone; see below for examples.

Pitch-accent language

pitch accentpitchaccent
Such minimal systems are sometimes called pitch accent since they are reminiscent of stress accent languages, which typically allow one principal stressed syllable per word.
A pitch-accent language is a language that has word-accents—that is, where one syllable in a word or morpheme is more prominent than the others, but the accentuated syllable is indicated by a particular pitch contour (linguistic tones) rather than by stress.

Minimal pair

minimal pairsminimal setssound pairs
In tonal languages, each syllable has an inherent pitch contour, and thus minimal pairs (or larger minimal sets) exist between syllables with the same segmental features (consonants and vowels) but different tones.
In phonology, minimal pairs are pairs of words or phrases in a particular language, spoken or signed, that differ in only one phonological element, such as a phoneme, toneme or chroneme, and have distinct meanings.

Vietnamese language

VietnameseVietnamese nameVietnamese-language
In Vietnamese, for example, the ngã and sắc tones are both high-rising but the former is distinguished by having glottalization in the middle.
The Vietnamese alphabet (chữ quốc ngữ) in use today is a Latin alphabet with additional diacritics for tones and certain letters.

Burmese language

BurmeseMyanmarMyanmar language
In some languages, such as Burmese, pitch and phonation are so closely intertwined that the two are combined in a single phonological system, where neither can be considered without the other.
Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language, largely monosyllabic and analytic, with a subject–object–verb word order.

Phoneme

phonemicphonemesphonemically
Languages that do have this feature are called tonal languages; the distinctive tone patterns of such a language are sometimes called tonemes, by analogy with phoneme.
Besides segmental phonemes such as vowels and consonants, there are also suprasegmental features of pronunciation (such as tone and stress, syllable boundaries and other forms of juncture, nasalization and vowel harmony), which, in many languages, can change the meaning of words and so are phonemic.

Navajo language

NavajoNavajo alphabetMode and Aspect
In Navajo, for example, syllables have a low tone by default, whereas marked syllables have high tone.
Its four basic vowels are distinguished for nasality, length, and tone.

Downstep

automatic downstepdownstepsdrop in pitch
In Japanese, fewer than half of the words have a drop in pitch; words contrast according to which syllable this drop follows.
Downstep is a phenomenon in tone languages in which if two syllables have the same tone (for example, both with a high tone or both with a low tone), the second syllable is lower in pitch than the first.

Phonation

voicingvoice qualityphonatory
In a number of East Asian languages, tonal differences are closely intertwined with phonation differences.
Variation in fundamental frequency is used linguistically to produce intonation and tone.

Register (phonology)

registerregistersvocal register
The distinctions of such systems are termed registers.
In phonology, a register, or pitch register, is a prosodic feature of syllables in certain languages in which tone, vowel phonation, glottalization or similar features depend upon one another.

Bantu languages

BantuBantu languageBantu-speaking
This is especially common with syllabic nasals, for example in many Bantu and Kru languages, but also occurs in Serbo-Croatian. In Cantonese, Thai, and to some extent the Kru languages, each syllable may have a tone, whereas in Shanghainese, the Scandinavian languages, and many Bantu languages, the contour of each tone operates at the word level.
With few exceptions, notably Swahili, Bantu languages are tonal and have two to four register tones.

Thai language

ThaiThai:Central Thai
In Cantonese, Thai, and to some extent the Kru languages, each syllable may have a tone, whereas in Shanghainese, the Scandinavian languages, and many Bantu languages, the contour of each tone operates at the word level.
It is a tonal and analytic language, similar to Chinese and Vietnamese.

Contour (linguistics)

contourcontoursmixed voicing
Most varieties of Chinese use contour tone systems, where the distinguishing feature of the tones are their shifts in pitch (that is, the pitch is a contour), such as rising, falling, dipping, or level.
These sounds may be tones, vowels, or consonants.

Old Chinese

OCancient ChineseArchaic Chinese
Unlike in Bantu systems, tone plays little role in the grammar of modern standard Chinese, though the tones descend from features in Old Chinese that had morphological significance (such as changing a verb to a noun or vice versa).
Most recent reconstructions also describe Old Chinese as a language without tones, but having consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, which developed into tone distinctions in Middle Chinese.

Vietic languages

VieticVietic languageViet–Muong
Contour systems are typical of languages of the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, including Kra–Dai, Vietic and Sino-Tibetan languages.
Modern Vietnamese is a monosyllabic tonal language like Cantonese and has lost many Proto-Austroasiatic phonological and morphological features.

Stress (linguistics)

stressstressedunstressed
Such minimal systems are sometimes called pitch accent since they are reminiscent of stress accent languages, which typically allow one principal stressed syllable per word.
A prominent syllable or word is said to be accented or tonic; the latter term does not imply that it carries phonemic tone.

Whistled language

whistled speechwhistledwhistling
In languages of West Africa such as Yoruba, people may even communicate with so-called "talking drums", which are modulated to imitate the tones of the language, or by whistling the tones of speech.
Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.

Bench language

BenchGimirabcq
Some languages combine both systems, such as Cantonese, which produces three varieties of contour tone at three different pitch levels, and the Omotic (Afroasiatic) language Bench, which employs five level tones and one or two rising tones across levels.
The language is also noteworthy in that it has six phonemic tones, one of only a handful of languages in the world that have this many.

Talking drum

tamatalking drumsdonno
In languages of West Africa such as Yoruba, people may even communicate with so-called "talking drums", which are modulated to imitate the tones of the language, or by whistling the tones of speech.
The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum from West Africa, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech.

Inflection

inflectedinflectional morphologyinflectional
Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words.

Kru languages

KruKru languageWestern Kru
This is especially common with syllabic nasals, for example in many Bantu and Kru languages, but also occurs in Serbo-Croatian. In Cantonese, Thai, and to some extent the Kru languages, each syllable may have a tone, whereas in Shanghainese, the Scandinavian languages, and many Bantu languages, the contour of each tone operates at the word level.
The Kru languages are known for some of the most complex tone systems in Africa, rivaled perhaps only by the Omotic languages.