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What is a Tonal Language?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tonal language is a language in which pitch is used as a part of speech, changing the meaning of a word. An example of how tone can change the meaning of a word can be found in English: the word “present” can be used as a verb or a noun, with a stress on the first or second syllable changing the meaning. In tonal languages, the way in which you say a word is very important, as it radically changes the meaning. Tonal languages are found primarily in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Perhaps the most famous tonal language is Chinese, which is infamously hard to learn both because of its complex written structure and because of the subtle variations in tone which can change the meanings of words. Depending on whether pitch is high or low and where the stress in a word is, its meaning can change radically. The sounds of tonal languages are often quite distinctive, as pitch changes rapidly within words and sentences.

When a tonal language is written, typically diacritical markings are used to indicate tone, to eliminate confusion. Unfortunately, when such languages are transliterated, these markings are often removed; English transliterations of Chinese words, for example, fail to indicate how these words should be pronounced. This can lead to confusion and embarrassment when trying to use transliterations to communicate with speakers of a tonal language.

In addition to Chinese, many Asian languages like Thai and Vietnamese are also tonal, and these languages also have unique regional dialects which may further change the inflections of words. In African, Hausa and Maasai are two common examples of tonal languages, although there are many more. In South America, many pre-Columbian languages such as some Mayan dialects are tonal.

No one really knows why some regions have numerous tonal languages and others have none. All sorts of theories have been posited, and linguists have shown how tonal languages evolve, but there is no hard and fast explanation for what leads a society to develop, or drop, a tonal language. Ancient Greek, for example, was tonal, and the tonal sounds of this language led to the development of a early set of diacritical markings so that written Greek could be understood. Modern Greek, however, lacks a tonal element, although it is clearly derived from Ancient Greek.

The specific sounds of a tonal language are sometimes called tonemes. All languages use tone and pitch to some extent to convey meaning, including European languages, which are among a family of pitch accent languages. In a tonal language, however, sound carries a word of subtlety which can be frustrating for adult language learners.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon225798 — On Oct 28, 2011

@Anon135064: all East Asian literature used to be written in classical Chinese. He could mean that other languages put different meanings to the same words. Regardless of exactly what he suggests, it makes sense. Although it has no actual alphabet, Chinese indeed has words and it's fairly easy to create new ones through characters.

Even today, in other countries that still use some Chinese characters, those words have different or even no equivalent meaning at all if you read them 'in Chinese'.

By anon135064 — On Dec 17, 2010

RE: Chinese resembled other ancient languages.

This comment makes no sense because historically there has been no alphabetic element to the Chinese language. The language uses ideographs rather than letters. Nothing is spelled the same because nothing is spelled.

By GigaGold — On Aug 17, 2010

Certain languages have evolved to be tonal or ceased to be tonal over time. All languages are constantly shifting, and an example of "toneless Chinese" occurs in Shanghai. Chinese has various "dialects" with varying numbers of tones, going from none to over eight, and many of these so-called dialects are mutually unintelligible, and hence we could think of them as separate languages.

The most ancient form of Chinese is probably the Cantonese dialect, which has more tones than Mandarin and also more sounds. It is likely that at some point Chinese resembled other ancient languages, but evolved to be tonal because of a necessity to distinguish between words which were spelled the same. The relationship between tones and word length in a language is usually inverse, and as Chinese dialects continue to evolve and compound words, tones may become obsolete.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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