Tone and tone languages

Types of nuclear tones in English

Intonation group as a meaningful linguistic unit in speech communication.

All the components of intonation, though in different degree, take part in shaping a sense-group or a tone-group or the tone-unit.

When we look at continuous speech in English utterances we find that different tones can only be identified on a small number of particularly prominent syllables. For the purposes of analysing intonation, a unit generally greater in size than the syllable is needed, and this unit is called by Peter Roach the tone-unit; by D. O'Connor and G.F. Arnold - an intonation group, by the majority of home phoneticians - a sense-group. In its smallest form the tone-unit may consist of only one syllable, so it would in fact be wrong to say that it is always composed of more than one syllable. The tone-unit is difficult to define, and one or two examples may help to make it easier to understand the concept.

One of the stressed syllables in the none-group, which has the greater prominence than the others, forms thenucleus (Vassilyev, Dikushina) or focal point (Leontyeva, Sokolova). The nuclear tone is obligatory and the most important part of the intonation pattern without which it cannot exist.

What the tone is? term used generally for musical and vocal PITCH and quality, and in phonetics and linguistics for a level or contour of pitch, the quality or choice of which is known as tonality. Specifically, tone is a pitch contour that begins on an accented SYLLABLE and continues to the end of a tone group: that is, up to but not including the next stressed syllable. Simple tones move only in one direction: fall and rise.

The number of nuclear tones varies (from 2 to 16) and depends on personal opinion of a phonetician and the phonological school he belongs to:


Armstrong (2) Gleason (3) Jones (4) Kingdon (5) O'Connor, Arnold (6) Vassilyev (8) Antipova (16)
  tune 1 - rising; tune 2 - falling     fading (in clause terminal); rising; sustained     falling rising Fall-Rise Rise-Fall Low Fall High Fall Low Rise High Rise Fall-Rise   Low Fall High Fall Low Rise High Rise Fall-Rise Rise-Fall   level Low Rise Low Fall Fall-Rise Rise-Fall Rise-Fall-Rise Fall Rise . ; . ; . .

As far as we understand, the three simple possibilities for the intonation used in pronouncing the one-word utterances are: level, fall and rise. We use special symbols to represent these and other tones, and for these examples we shall use marks placed before the syllable in the following way:

Level > yes >no Falling yes no Rising yes no

Obviously, this simple system for tone transcription could be extended, if we wished, to cover a greater number of possibilities. For example, if it was important to distinguish between a high level and low level tone for English we could do it in this way:

High level > yes > no Low level > yes > no

Although in English we do on occasions say >yes or >no and on other occasions >yes or >no, no speaker of English would say that the meaning of the words 'yes' and 'no' was different with the different tones. But there are many languages in which the tone can determine the meaning of a word, and changing from one tone to another can completely change the meaning. For example, in Kono, a language of West Africa, we find the following (meanings given in brackets):

High level >bFN ('uncle') >bu: ('horn')

Low level >bFN ('greedy') >bu: ('to be cross')

Similarly, while we can hear a difference between English >yes, yes and yes, and between >no, no and no, there is not a difference in meaning in such a clear-cut way as in Chinese (Peking dialect), where, for example, >ma means 'mother', ma means 'hemp' and ma means 'scold'. Languages such as the above are called tone languages; although to most speakers of European languages they may seem strange and exotic, such languages are in fact spoken by a very large proportion of the world's population. In addition to the many dialects of Chinese, many other languages of south-east Asia (e.g. Thai, Vietnamese) are tone languages; so are very many African languages, particularly those to the South and West, and a considerable number of Amerindian languages. English is, of course, not a tone language, and the function of tone is much more difficult to define than in a tone language.


  2. Lexical differences between languages
  3. North Germanic Languages
  4. Old and Modern Germanic Languages
  5. Planning languages

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