What Are Tonal Languages?

Whether you have perfect pitch or feel tone-deaf, we have answers to all your burning tonal language questions.
elderly couple speaking tonal languages

Learning another language is fascinating for a lot of reasons, but a particularly cool thing to observe is how other languages do things that your mother tongue doesn’t. A phenomenon particularly interesting to people who don’t speak them is tonal languages, or tone languages. 

If you know only one thing about tonal languages, it’s probably that Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese are tonal. There’s a lot more to it than that, though, so we’re here to answer all your questions on the topic.

What Is Tone, And What Are Tonal Languages?

Tone is often compared to pitch in music. A specific musical note has a certain pitch that defines how high or low it is.

The terminology can be a bit confusing, because “pitch” and “tone” are used in both language and music. So while “tone” in language is comparable to “pitch” in music, “pitch” is a more specific phenomenon where one syllable in a word is distinguished by a linguistic “tone.” This is also all separate from “stress,” which is when one syllable in a word is accentuated (“the PERfect gift” vs. “I want to perFECT it”).

If that is hard to figure out, it’s probably easier to think of languages that use pitch — pitch-accent languages — as a subset of tonal languages. The main difference is that tonal languages use several tones, whereas pitch-accent languages only have a couple. Like many topics in linguistics, there are plenty of examples that complicate this binary divide, but for now, this gives you a solid idea to go on.

Languages can use tone without being tonal languages. English speakers, for example, can raise their tone at the end of a sentence to indicate that it’s a question (it’s also part of a phenomenon called upspeak). Tone can be used in a number of ways to convey different things to a listener in English, but it’s not tonal.

For a language to be considered tonal, a word’s meaning has to be affected by the tone. The most popular example to cite is the Mandarin Chinese ma. Depending on the tone, ma can mean “horse,” “hemp,” “scold” or “mother.” If you want to say “mother,” you’ll say ma in a high tone, but if you say “horse” you start high, then go down, then go up again in quick succession. In all, Mandarin has five tones (or four tones and one neutral tone).

Each language treats tone differently. Some languages, including Thai and Vietnamese, can go all the way up to 7 or 8 tones, though it does seem to max out around there.

Which Languages Are Tonal? 

While the many varieties of Chinese get the most coverage, there are lots of tonal languages out there. Other tonal languages include Thai, Igbo, Yòrúba, Punjabi, Zulu and Navajo. All told, there are over 1.5 billion people who speak a tonal language.

There are also a number of pitch-accent languages. These include Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, Filipino, Swedish and Ancient Greek. These languages generally have two tone distinctions, say a high and a low.

Why Are Some Languages Tonal?

There’s no telling exactly why some languages are tonal and others aren’t. Part of it is just the random evolution of language. Languages can gain or lose tone over time; some varieties of Norwegian are starting to lose their tonal distinctions. 

There’s at least one condition that could partially explain the phenomenon, however. Studies have shown that there’s a link between the development of tonal languages and humidity. Places that have a lot of humidity are home to more tonal languages. Moist air allows vocal folds to move more freely, which is important in tonal languages because you need to be able to consistently hit the right tone for what you’re saying to make sense. 

How Hard Is It To Learn A Tonal Language?

Tone can be one of the hardest things to master for a language learner. If you’re not used to tonal distinctions, they can be really difficult even to hear, let alone produce on your own. Speaking a tonal language as a child helps people attain perfect pitch, and that is not as easy to do later in life.

That said, tone is just another aspect of a language, and it’s not necessarily harder than mastering another language’s grammatical system. The main divide is that it can be hard to explain through text, so you can’t rely on a textbook as much to teach you how to pronounce the sounds that you’ll need in a new language. (And yes, tone-deaf people are capable of speaking tonal languages.) On the flipside, tonal languages tend to have a smaller overall vocabulary and a simpler grammar.

If you’re thinking of learning a tonal or pitch-accent language but feel worried about mastering tones, it’s worth giving it a try. Learning to speak tonally is a worthy challenge that can expand your idea of what language is, and what language can do. 

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