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,
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. In Limburgish
language), however, tones play an important role.
tonal languages, spoken in the Indian
subcontinent, are: Punjabi,
Most languages of sub-Saharan
Africa (notably excepting Swahili
in the East, and Wolof
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
(but not Mongolian,
or standard Korean).
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
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,
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
More recently, a statistical analysis conducted by researchers
at the University of Edinburgh highlighted a correlation
between the microcephaly
with the tonality of language .
Because the transcriptions of tonal languages in the
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
Barbara Lust, James Gair. Lexical Anaphors and
Pronouns in Selected South Asian Languages. Page
637. Walter de Gruyter, 1999. ISBN
Inventory of Punjabi
Geeti Sen. Crossing Boundaries. Orient Blackswan,
9788125013419. Page 132. Quote: "Possibly, Punjabi
is the only major South Asian language that has this
kind of tonal character. There does seem to have been
some speculation among scholars about the possible
origin of Punjabi's tone-language character but without
any final and convincing answer."
Dan; Ladd, D. Robert (2007), "Linguistic
tone is related to the population frequency of the
adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM
and Microcephalin", PNAS Early Edition,
retrieved on 12 June 2007
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