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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.