So, it recently came to my attention that Chinese tone is not necessary a suprasegmental feature like I assumed. It seems that some claim it can be analyzed as being subsegmental.

If I am interested in studying tone as a suprasegmental feature, is there a more paradigmatic tonal language where tone is uncontroversially supersegmental?

  • 2
    Four clarifying questions: 1. In your theory, is "suprasegmental" the same as "autosegmental"? and 2: Are you asking about a language that has been given only autosegmental treatments and no "segmental" treatments (so, no disagreement in publications). 3: Are you referring specifically to the Q theory of contours when talking of "subsegmental" features. 4: If so, so you mean a language which is inconsistent with that theory, or would simply neutral between theories suffice?
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 15:06
  • 1. I'm not sure. I just meant 'above the level of the segment'; 2. I'm looking for a language where tone is widely understood as being suprasegmental but obviously absolute consensus is rare in prosodic studies; 3-4 neutral between theories would definitely suffice.
    – Teusz
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 7:31

1 Answer 1


For the purposes of this question, I take this Q&A as a background assumption. Informally speaking, a "segmental" theory of tone is one where tonal features are dominated by the root node (or functional equivalent) and where tone features and place of articulation features are structurally analogous. Within the class of suprasegmental tone theories, you find that tones are said to be immediately dominated by skeletal positions, moras, syllables, rhymes, words and feet; within subsegmental theories, tones are immediately dominated by the root (rarely) or Laryngeal nodes (the latter being immediately dominated by the root node).

The majority view is that tone features are suprasegmental in that sense. Clark 1989 in contrast claims that tonal features are dominated by the laryngeal node (similar claims have been made before but they were usually made before or in ignorance of the above-mentioned represenational possibilities, so Clark's work is important in explicitly embracing the segmental theory).

Bao Zhiming (1999) analyzes tone Chinese suprasegmentally, specifically with tone being immediately dominated by the Rhyme. Duanmu (1990) on the other hand adopts a subsegmental model of Chinese with tone features under the laryngeal node. It is actually very difficult to find explicit commitments to particular representational theories, when dealing with Chinese (or other languages).

There are relatively few analyses where tone is claimed to be subsegmental (it is impossible to categorize the Shih & Inkelas approach since we have no idea what their metatheory of representation is). So essentially, almost all analyses of tone since 1980 (and most from before) are in fact suprasegmental. For a brief survey of tonology, you might look at the last chapter of Introducing phonology to see kinds of phenomena and languages that motivate the suprasegmental approach. There are two kinds of facts which have been invokes to at least point to a segmental alterative: "unit contours" (Chinese figures prominently there), and consonant-tone interaction (see Bradshaw 1999 for analysis, in a suprasegmental approach).

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