18 Facts About Tone


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

Language is the ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so, and a language is any specific example of such a system.

Tone & Mood Words by Marisa Hammond - Olivares


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 grammar, inflection or inflexion – sometimes called accidence – is the modification of a word to express different grammatical categories such as tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and mood.

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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.

A phoneme is one of the units of sound that distinguish one word from another in a particular language.


Tonal languages are extremely common in Africa, East Asia, and Mexico, but rare elsewhere in Asia and in Europe; as many as seventy percent of world languages may be tonal.


In many tonal African languages, such as most Bantu languages, tones are distinguished by their pitch level relative to each other, known as a register tone system.

The Bantu languages, technically the Narrow Bantu languages, constitute a traditional branch of the n*gg*r–Congo languages.


In multisyllable words, a single tone may be carried by the entire word rather than a different tone on each syllable.


Often, grammatical information, such as past versus present, "I" versus "you", or positive versus negative, is conveyed solely by tone.


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.

Mandarin is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China.


Many words, especially monosyllabic ones, are differentiated solely by tone.


In a multisyllabic word, each syllable often carries its own tone.


Unlike in Bantu systems, tone plays little role in modern Chinese grammar though the tones descend from features in Old Chinese that had morphological significance.

Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese.


Contour systems are typical of languages of the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, including Tai–Kadai, Vietic and Sino-Tibetan languages.

Mainland Southeast Asia, also known as the Indochinese Peninsula and previously Indochina, is the continental portion of Southeast Asia lying east of India and south of China, bounded by the Indian Ocean to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east.

The Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area is a linguistic area that stretches from Thailand to China and is home to speakers of languages of the Sino-Tibetan, Hmong–Mien, Tai–Kadai, Austronesian and Austroasiatic families.

The Sino-Tibetan languages, in a few sources also known as Tibeto-Burman or Trans-Himalayan, are a family of more than 400 languages spoken in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia.


The Afroasiatic, Khoisan, n*gg*r-Congo and Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in Africa are dominated by register systems.

The Nilo-Saharan languages are a proposed family of African languages spoken by some 50–60 million Nilotic people, mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers, including historic Nubia, north of where the two tributaries of the Nile meet.


Some languages combine both systems, such as Cantonese, which produces three varieties of contour tone at three different pitch levels, and the Omotic language Bench, which employs five level tones and one or two rising tones across levels.


Many languages use tone in a more limited way.


In Japanese, fewer than half of the words have a drop in pitch; words contrast according to which syllable this drop follows.


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.

Pitch accent is a feature of certain languages whose variations in pitch can be used to differentiate words, but the potentially distinctive tones are restricted to one or two syllables within a word.

In linguistics, and particularly phonology, stress or accent is relative emphasis or prominence given to a certain syllable in a word, or to a certain word in a phrase or sentence.


However, there is debate over the definition of pitch accent and whether a coherent definition is even possible.

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