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My knowledge of tonal language is very limited, so I'm not clear on what the case is and unsure about examples, but my question is this:

In tonal languages, like Mandarin, is tone carried and therefore transcribed on the phoneme /w/?

i.e. in a word such as /fwl/ in a tonal language, would we ever transcribe the tone on the /w/ phoneme (/w/ being a semivowel, rather than a true vowel)?

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2 Answers

The choice in transcription will often depend on the analyst, and there may be cases where there is no clear evidence from the language to suggest why one convention is superior.

Although tone is usually thought to be associated with syllables or morae rather than with individual segments, within a tonal domain such as a syllable or mora, the most sonorous segment is usually designated as being tone-bearing.

If there was a hypothetical word /fws/ in a tonal language and that word was associated with a lexical tone, then the /w/, being the most sonorous segment, would be the one to get associated with a tone. However, there are some phonologists who would argue that because the segment in question bears a tone, it must be /u/ and not /w/. This means that, in order for the analysis to be uncontroversial, there should also be a word /fus/ associated with a tone which contrasts with /fws/. These kinds of biases have to be kept in mind when an analysis is developed. The main issue is the contentious nature of the sonority hierarchy itself. There is no agreement about how the hierarchy should be defined, and so there is often a confusion between data which substantiates the hierarchy itself, and data for which the hierarchy should be invoked in interpreting.

A simpler type type of case which is well-enough attested is for a syllabic non-vocoid, such as a nasal stop or a lateral consonant, to bear contrastive tone. In such a case, since there is only one identifiable segment in the syllable, that segment will be the one to bear the tone, even though it is not a vowel.

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Depends a lot on the language and analysis. Tone transcription is a messy area with no universal agreement. The most common way is probably to transcribe tone on the nucleus, although where the tone goes with a diphthong/triphthong is generally governed more by convention than phonetic reality. This method also doesn't have one common way of handling syllables with no nucleus. Others transcribe tone with tone letters or contour diacritics after each syllable. This approach is less common.

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