Languages are a fascinating thing indeed. There are thousands of languages in the world, and their particular evolution has taken each one through their own paths, even developing strange idiosyncrasies. Some languages stack up words to convey new meanings, while others just rely on an incredibly large vocabulary or borrowing from their neighbors, and some depend entirely on tonality to differentiate words. Take, for example, this poem written by a Chinese linguist called Yuen Ren Chao in the 1930s. 


Shī-shì shí shī shǐ

Lion-eating poet in the Stone Den

Notice how all the words seem the same, yet the translation shows a different story? This is a little fun demonstration of tonality in Mandarin, and each iteration of ‘shi’ ([ʂɻ̩]) has to be read in a different tone to be understood.

Now, for anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese as their mother tongue, or any other tonal language for that matter, it can be really hard to wrap one’s head around how a tonal language works. So, let’s get into deciphering the intriguing world of tonal languages.

What is a tonal language, exactly?

In so many words, a tonal language is a type of language where tonality is applied to words to convey different meanings. This means that a single word or syllable can have various meanings depending on the tone being used when pronounced. 

In order for a language to be considered tonal, the meaning of words must be affected by tonality. An oft-cited example is the word ‘ma’ in Mandarin Chinese. Depending on the tone used, ma can mean anything from ‘mother’ to ‘horse’, ‘hemp’, or ‘scold’.

To say ‘mother’ in Mandarin, you have to say ‘ma’ in a high pitch, but to say ‘horse’ you would have to begin in a high tone, go down and then rise again quickly. Typically, these languages have a set number of tones that can be learned and applied to most words. 

Mandarin has 5 tones in total, while Thai or Vietnamese have as many as 8 tones. One advantage of using tonality is that language rules are often simplified and a large vocabulary is easier to learn. However, if you can’t hit the right tone when speaking you will probably be misunderstood, so it requires an exercise of nuance when listening and talking.

Isn’t English a bit tonal too?

Not really. As we said before, for a language to be truly tonal, words have to change meaning when different tones are applied to them. Now, if you are a language nerd like me, you will probably want to point in the direction of homophones and homographs in English.

These special cases could be thought of as small examples of tonality used within the English language, but there are no general rules about them, and in most cases tone has nothing to do with it. Technically, stressing a different syllable is not an example of tonality (think of the difference between ‘ABStract’ and ‘absTRACT’).

However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some outliers out there. Some languages that are somewhere in the middle between a tonal language and a tone-deaf one are called pitch-accent languages, like Swedish or Japanese. The main difference with proper tonal languages is that here tonality is only applied to a certain syllable inside a word, and the range of tonality that can be used is way more limited.

If you don’t feel satisfied with this answer yet, let’s say that there are still some cases where English uses tone to differentiate meaning. For example, when the tone is raised at the end of a sentence it usually means that the sentence is a question. This is called upspeak, and while it does utilize a tone nuance to help distinguish the intent of a sentence, it’s not enough to make English tonal.

Tonal languages in the world

Chinese is often the first example of a tonal language that comes to mind, but it is certainly not the only one. Navajo, Thai, Zulu, Igbo, Yòrúba, and Punjabi can all be considered tonal, along with many native languages in Central America and other parts of the world. To give some perspective, there are around 1.5 billion speakers of tonal languages in the world.

While there’s no clear explanation as to why or how tonal languages developed, some studies have pointed to the prevalence of tonality in regions with high humidity. One explanation for this phenomenon is that since moist air helps vocal cords move more freely, the development of tonality within language would have been easier.

If you love to learn about words, grammar, and language, don’t miss out on our other articles. We will keep exploring and answering engaging and interesting questions related to these topics, so stay around!