Tone (linguistics)

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Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning—that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information, and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called intonation, but not all languages use tones to distinguish words or their inflections, analogously to consonants and vowels. Such tonal phonemes are sometimes called tonemes.

In the most widely-spoken tonal language, Chinese, tones are distinguished by their shape (contour) and pitch range (or register). Most syllables carry their own tone and many words are differentiated solely by tone. Moreover, tone plays little role in modern Chinese grammar, though the tones descend from features in Old Chinese that did have morphological significance. In many tonal African languages, such as most Bantu languages, however, tones are distinguished by their relative level, words are longer, there are fewer minimal tone pairs, and a single tone may be carried by the entire word, rather than a different tone on each syllable. Often grammatical information, such as past versus present, "I" versus "you", or positive versus negative, is conveyed solely by tone.

Many languages use tone in a more limited way. Somali, for example, may only have one high tone per word. In Japanese, fewer than half of the words have drop in pitch; words contrast according to which syllable this drop follows. Such minimal systems are sometimes called pitch accent, since they are reminiscent of stress accent languages which typically allow one principal stressed syllable per word. However, there is debate over the definition of pitch accent, and whether a coherent definition is even possible.


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