A tonal language
is a language that uses tone
to distinguish words. Tone is a phonological trait
common to many languages around the world (though rare in Europe
, the Middle East
, South Asia
, and the Pacific
is perhaps the most well-known of such languages.
Geography of tonality
In Europe, Norwegian
, some dialects of Slovene
possess elements of tonality, but this is in most cases better understood as a pitch accent
, however in Limburgish
(a Franconian language
) tones play an important role.
Most languages of sub-Saharan Africa (notably excepting Swahili in the East, and Wolof and Fulani in the West) are tonal. Hausa is tonal, although it is a distant relative of the Semitic languages, which are not.
There are numerous tonal languages in East Asia, including all the Chinese dialects (although Shanghainese is generally considered as only marginally tonal, with characteristics of pitch accent), Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and Burmese (but not Mongolian, Khmer, Malay, standard Japanese or standard Korean). In Tibet, the Central and Eastern dialects of Tibetan (including that of the capital Lhasa) are tonal, while the dialects of the West are not.
Many of the languages of New Guinea are tonal, such as those of the Eastern Highlands and the Sko and Lakes Plain families.
Some of the native languages of North and South America possess tonality, especially the Na-Dené languages of Alaska and the American Southwest (including Navajo), and the Oto-Manguean languages of Mexico. Among the Mayan languages, which are mostly non-tonal, Yucatec (with the largest number of speakers), Uspantek and one dialect of Tzotzil, have developed tones.
Patterns of tonality
Tonal patterns vary widely across languages. In English
, one or more syllables are given an accent
, which can consist of a loud stress
, a lengthened vowel
, and a high pitch
, or any combination of these. In tonal languages, the pitch accent must be present, but the others are optional. For example, in Czech
, the first syllable of each word is stressed, but any syllable may be lengthened, and pitch is not used. In French
, no syllable is stressed or lengthened, but the final or penultimate
syllable has higher pitch. Turkish
similarly has high pitch on the last syllable, but also possesses length and possibly stress. None of these languages are considered tonal, and there is much discussion about how much prominence pitch must have in order to label a language tonal.
Many sub-Saharan languages (such as Hausa) have a scheme in which individual syllables in a word have a fixed pitch. High and low pitch are always permissible, and sometimes a middle level of pitch occurs as well. However, some are more complex. In Yoruba there are three pitches (high, low, and middle) and the meaning of a word is determined by the pitch on the vowels. For example, the word "owo" in Yoruba could mean "broom", "hand", or "respect" depending on how the vowels are pitched. Also, "you" (singular) in Yoruba is o in a middle pitch, while the word for "he, she, it" is o in a high pitch. Change of pitch is used in some African languages (such as Luo) for grammatical purposes, such as marking past tense.
Ancient Greek had a tonal pattern wherein, in isolated words, exactly one mora was high, and the others low. A short vowel formed a single mora, and therefore had only high or low tone, whereas a long vowel comprised two morae, and could therefore be low, or rising (from low to high), or falling (from high to low). Note that the scheme was more complex when words were grouped together, as they could form accentuation units with proclitic words at the start and enclitic words at the end, and such accentuation units could have multiple accents. By the start of the Middle Ages, this tonal accent system had been simplified to a stress accent system, but remained recorded in written Greek until the 1970's.
In the Japanese of Tokyo, tonal patterns are adapted to multi-syllable words. Every word must contain a single continuous chain of high pitched moras, beginning with either the first or second mora. Moras preceding and following this chain, if any, must be low. E.g., the city name Kyōto has tone KYOoto, with the pitch pattern high-low-low. The words for "chopstick", "edge" and "bridge" all have the consonant-vowel structure hashi, but the first has the pitch pattern high-low, the second low-high, while the third is also low-high but is followed by an obligatory low in the next word.
Tonal contours (rising, falling, or even more elaborate ones) are present in many languages, such as Thai, Vietnamese and the many Chinese dialects. In Standard Thai, every word has one of five associated contours: high even, middle even, low even, rising, or falling. Northern varieties of Vietnamese has six tones which utilise pitch contours as well as phonations: mid level, low falling, high rising, mid dipping-rising, high creaky-rising (which is absent in the South) and low falling constricted. Mandarin has four tones, similar to Thai's without the middle tone. Cantonese has at least 8 tonal contours: high even, high falling (which is becoming obsolete, and changing to high even), high rising, middle even, middle rising, low even, low falling and low rising. Two of them (high even and middle rising) are often superimposed upon words with other tone contours to indicate emotional closeness or familiarity, in a manner parallel to the diminutive suffixes of many Romance and Slavic languages.
Theories of tonogenesis
Because languages can both acquire tonality (like Hausa or Yucatec Maya) and lose it (like Korean and Ancient Greek), linguists have speculated on its origin. From comparison of the Tibetan dialects with and without tone, and of both with the spelling of Ancient Tibetan, it appears that initial voiced
consonants are associated with a low pitch register, while unvoiced
ones associate with high. Even though the voicing of the consonants has been lost, the pitch register remains. Also, the loss of final consonants in Central Tibetan (which are preserved in spelling and in the atonal dialects) suggests that such loss gives rise to tonal contours. In addition to Tibetan, both Chinese and Vietnamese are believed to have been atonal within the past two millennia , and to have developed their modern tonal systems in such a fashion.
More recently, a statistical analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh highlighted a correlation between the microcephaly genes MCPH1 and ASPM with the tonality of language .
Because the transcriptions of tonal languages in the Latin alphabet
were often devised by untrained Europeans
, who were largely unfamiliar with the phenomenon, most official spellings of such languages today simply omit all indication of tonality. Even Pinyin
, the current official Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese
, is commonly printed in most publications without tone marks. This makes the Chinese words much harder to identify correctly; a similar situation would arise if photographs of birds in birdwatching handbooks were printed in black and white instead of full color.
On the other hand, Vietnamese is written with quốc ngữ, a Latin-based alphabet that denotes tones using diacritical marks above or below the base vowels; this was possibly inspired by a similar system used to write Ancient Greek. So too, Yoruba, almost alone among the tonal languages of Africa, is often written with tonal marks. The tonal marking of Navajo is especially simple, as only a single diacritic is needed to mark high, low, rising and falling tones.
Left-brained and right-brained dominance in tonal language processing
The left hemisphere has been thought since the 19th century to be dominant in speech perception. In English, pitch is used for determining sentence type (note the rise in pitch in: "is this a question"?) but in general pitch is prosodic
. However, Chinese uses pitch to make critical distinctions between words. Language researchers have argued about whether the defining qualities of tonal languages implied notable right-brained activity, or substantial bi-lateral brain activity (that is, using both sides of the brain), and different research techniques seemed to arrive at different conclusions. In 2006, researchers demonstrated that the tonal qualities of tonal languages as spoken by native speakers of the tonal language
generate more right-brain activity as would be expected for "non speech" sounds with pitch but only for 200 milliseconds
. After 200 milliseconds, the left brain hemisphere becomes dominant like other speech information. There are two implications of their research. First, there does appear to be some low-level specialized processing for pitch in the right-hemisphere with respect to sounds that could be speech, which explains some prior research that noted the increased activity in the right-brain in tonal language processing. However, this research suggests that after
the brain tags the tonal information as content-level (meaning-level) information for Chinese native speakers, the information is dominantly processed in the left brain. Both sides are used throughout all steps of language processing, but the activity on one side or the other does appear, starting with right brain only briefly, followed by a much longer time with left hemisphere dominance.