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Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish words. All languages use intonation to express emphasis, emotion, or other such nuances, but not every language uses tone to distinguish meaning. When this occurs, tones are equally important and essential as phonemes (discrete speech sounds, for example, /t/, or /d/), and they are referred to as tonemes.
Languages that make use of tonemes are called tonal languages. The majority of the languages in the world are tonal. Most Indo-European languages, which include some of the most widely-spoken languages in the world today, are not tonal.
The Sino-Tibetan language group mainly consists of tonal languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Tibetan. Almost all Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, e. g. the various Chinese languages, Tibetan, Burmese; however Nepal Bhasa (or Newari), a language of Nepal, is atonal, probably due to contact with neighboring Indic languages. Tonal languages have also emerged in many other language families, such as:
- The Austro-Asiatic: Vietnamese (other languages of this family, such as Mon, Khmer and the Munda languages, are atonal).
- The Tai-Kadai family, e. g. Thai.
- The Miao-Yao family
- Many Afro-Asiatic: Chadic, e. g. Hausa, Cushitic, and Omotic subfamilies.
- Most Niger-Congo languages, e. g. Wolof, Peul, Malinke, Yoruba, Twa, Lingala, Nguni — the last two being Bantu languages. Some, like Swahili, a Bantu language, are non-tonal; Nguni includes Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi).
- All Khoisan languages.
- The Athapaskan languages, e. g. Navajo and the other Apache languages; Athabaskan languages are often included into a larger Na-Dene family, but the reality of Na-Dene especially regarding Haida and Tlingit has been questioned; and many native language families of the Americas.
- Some creoles, such as Saramaccan, have developed tones, possibly influenced by Sub-Saharan African languages.
- Several dead languages also incorporate tones, including Vedic Sanskrit. Some linguists have suggested that Sumerian may have had tones (presumably to try and reduce the great number of homonyms of Sumerian whose lexemes and morphemes are all monosyllabic), but that hypothesis has not been generally accepted.
Austronesian languages are generally non-tonal: Malay-Indonesian, Javanese, Balinese, Cham — the language of Indianized kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam, Malagasy and the Polynesian languages such as Fijian, Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Pascuan, etc. which are the best known Austronesian languages, are all non-tonal.
Some Indo-European are usually characterized as tonal, such as Lithuanian, Old Church Slavonic, Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, but they are in fact pitch accent languages; Limburgian, Swedish and Norwegian may be closer to being true tone languages. Panjabi is a true tone language where the tones arose as a reinterpretation of a consonant series in terms of pitch.
Origin of tone
Generally tone in a language is an areal, not a genetic, feature: that is, a language tends to, but does not always automatically, acquire tones if many neighboring languages also are tonal. For example it is accepted that tones in the East-Asian language area spread from the Chinese family (Sinitic) or from Tai-Kadai, more probably from Sinitic.
An interesting question is how tones arise in a language (tonogenesis). In the Chinese languages it is known that they arose as a reinterpretation of initial or final consonant clusters as a pitch inflection of the vocalic nucleus of syllables. It is also known, in all languages, that surrounding consonants influence the pitch of the adjacent vowel. The same thing happened for Vietnamese, probably under the influence of Chinese; note that Khmer, which is genetically related to Vietnamese, is not a tonal language. Another example is Korean and Japan. Although they were under heavy influence from Chinese cultures and vast amount of Chinese loan words exist, both are not tonal language. This mechanism seems to account for the appearance of contour tones.
In the Algonquian language Cheyenne, tone arose via vowel contraction; the long vowels of Proto-Algonquian contracted into high-pitched vowels in Cheyenne, while the short vowels became low-pitched.
Tone as a distinguishing feature
Most languages use intonation (that is, pitch) to convey grammatical structure or emphasis (see phonology), but this does not make them tonal languages in this sense. In these cases, tones can change how the audience is intended to interpret a word (e.g. sarcastically), but in tonal languages, the tone is an integral part of a word itself. Thus minimal pairs can exist in such a language, distinguished only by a change of tone.
To illustrate how tone can affect meaning, let us look at the following example from Mandarin, which has five tones, which can be indicated by diacritics over vowels:
- A long, high level tone: ā
- Starts at normal pitch and rises to the pitch of tone 1: á
- A low tone, dipping down briefly before slowly rising to the starting level of tone 2: ǎ
- A sharply falling tone, starting at the height of tone 1 and falling to somewhere below tone 2's onset: à
- A neutral tone, sometimes indicated by a zero or a dot (·), which has no specific contour; the actual pitch expressed is directly influenced by the tones of the preceding and following syllables. Mandarin speakers refer to this tone as the "light tone" (輕聲).
These tones can lead to one syllable, e.g. "ma", having five meanings, depending on the tone associated with it, so that "mā" glosses as "mother", "má" as "hemp", "mǎ" as "horse", "mà" as "scold", and toneless "ma" at the end of a sentence acts as an interrogative particle. This differentiation in tone allows a speaker to create the (not entirely grammatical) sentence:
妈 骂 马 的 麻 吗? (in traditional Chinese characters: "媽媽罵馬的麻嗎?")
- "Is Mother scolding the horse's hemp?"
Tones can interact in complex ways through a process known as tone sandhi.
Register and contour tones
Tonal languages fall into two broad categories: register and contour systems. Mandarin and its close relatives have contour systems, where differences are made not based on absolute pitch, but on shifts in relative pitch in a word. Register systems are found in Bantu languages, which more typically seem to have 2 or 3 tones with specific relative pitches assigned to them, with a high tone and a low tone being the most common (plus a middle tone for languages that have a third pitch).
Please note that the word "pitch" is used loosely here, to refer to the comparative "difference" between a high pitch and a low pitch from one syllable to the next, rather than a contrast of absolute pitches such as one finds in music. As a result, when one combines tone with sentence contours, the musical pitch of a high tone at the beginning of a question may actually be lower than the musical pitch of a low-tone word at the end of the question, because the "average" pitch between the high and low tones rises (and falls) along with the overall pitch contour of the sentence.
Due to the fact that tonal languages are found all over the world, several systems to mark tone have developed independently. In Asian and Meso-american contexts, numerical systems are most common, whereas accent marks are used mainly in African contexts.
In African linguistics (as well as in many African orthographies), usually a set of accent marks is used to mark tone. The most common phonetic set (which is also included in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found below:
|High tone||acute accent||á|
|Mid tone||level accent||ā|
|Low tone||grave accent||à|
Several variations are found. In many three tone languages, it is common to mark High and Low tone as indicated above, but to omit marking of the Mid tone, e.g. má (High), ma (Mid), mà (Low). Similarly, in some two tone languages, only one tone is marked explicitly.
A slightly different approach is to limit the number of digits to the actual number of level tones in a language. Thus, a three tone language could be marked tonally by use of the numbers 1, 2 and 3.
In the most common Chinese tradition, numbers are assigned to various tones. For instance, Standard Mandarin has four tones, so the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are generally assigned to each tone. However, the tones can also be described by tone contour numbers. A string of different numbers shows starting and ending pitches, so /35/ is a tone contour. The most common Chinese notation, known as the 'Chao tone letters' (Chao 1930), splits pitch into five levels: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The lowest pitch is 1, and the highest pitch 5. The variation in pitch can be described as a string of numbers, for instance, the four Mandarin tones can be described with the following contours:
|High tone||55||(Tone 1)|
|Mid rising tone||35||(Tone 2)|
|Low falling rising tone||213||(Tone 3)|
|High falling tone||51||(Tone 4)|
A mid-level tone would be indicated by /33/, a low level tone /11/, etc.
The Thai language has an alphabetic writing system, which gives complete information on the tone. Tone is defined by an interaction between the "class" of the initial consonant of a syllable and a possible "tone mark" above it. The same tone mark may denote a different tone, depending on the class of the consonant. There are five tones: high, mid, low, rising and falling.
The Hmong language has an interesting notational system for tones. The seven tones of Hmong are indicated by an orthographic consonant "letter" occurring at the end of the word. This ingenious system enabled Hmong speakers to type their language using an ordinary Roman-letter typewriter without having to resort to using diacritics.
In Meso-americanist linguistics, /1/ stands for High tone and /5/ stands for Low tone.
Tonal languages and music
How the tones of syllables are handled when a song is sung in a tonal language depends on the language, as it is generally governed by the respective culture's traditions. In Mandarin pop music (but not in traditional theatre such as Beijing opera), the tones are generally dropped, thereby making the song hard to understand and sometimes ambiguous without written lyrics. In Cantonese (and Taiwanese), it is generally attempted to construct the melody or the lyrics in such a way that they fit to each other (even in modern pop). Other tonal languages may have other customs. (Vietnamese folk and classical music also respect tonal contours.)
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