I am new to learning all of this and had a couple of questions.

Tone languages use pitch to distinguish words. For example, in Thai

  • nā with a mid-tone meaning "rice paddy".
  • nǎ with a rising tone meaning "thick".

Intonation languages do not make such distinctions. Intonation is only used to distinguish the meaning of sentences in English.

“David got a new car” is a statement with falling intonation, but a question with rising intonation.

My question is: In tonal languages how do they distinguish meaning within their sentences or do they? I am also really curious to know if in the music of tonal languages; do they preserve the tones? If they do, is the beat in the background ignored? Or, do they not preserve the tones; then I have to wonder how the words are distinguished in the song?

  • 2
    Not sure about Thai, but as far as Mandarin is concerned, tones are completely lost in music. As far as distinguishing the meaning of sentence, usually particles are adopted (yes-no questions with ma, as in 你有孩子吗? Do you have children?) and also question words are used as in 你是谁? (lit. you are who?), although there are cases where none is used, 你多大? (How old are you?), and so on. In any case, rising intonation may be used, but it will still be distinguished from singular character tones. See also: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/7151/111
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 16:05
  • 6
    The music part of your question is answered here: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/3309/…
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 20:48
  • 1
    Just because tones distinguish meaning, it doesn't mean you need tones all the time. In Italian vowels distinguish meaning, but in classical singing many vowels are mushed together into easier-to-sing sounds. Context and familiarity with the lyrics compensate for the loss of information. Even en Englesh, ene cen generelle be endersrteed even ef ene speek er wrete weth enle ene vewel. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 10:30
  • @leoboiko At your last sentence, I was like "what is going on?"... then I understood.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 12:07
  • 1
    Yes, as @fdb says, the music parts of this question are totally separate questions and have for the most part already been answered elsewhere. They should be removed from this question. If you have follow-up questions about singing in tone languages that are not addressed in that other thread, you should ask them as separate questions. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 20:29

4 Answers 4


Unfortunately I can't cite examples from tonal languages, but for a general understanding, meaning that is in some languages conveyed by intonation can alternatively expressed by lexical means or syntactic means instead.

For the lexical means, Alenanno already gave an example with question particles in Mandarin, which also occur in other, sometimes non-tonal languages (e.g. Finnish with the question cliticon -ko/-kö which is attached to the finite verb or the constituent in question, barely making an intonational distinction between declarative and question sentences).

As an example for syntactic means, I'd like to note that apart from sentence type distinction (declarative sentence, question, command, ...), there are some more features which are expressed by intonation in English but by other means in other languages, for example information structure.

English introduces focus mostly by accent, which is an intonational device:

What did Andrea bake?  
- Andrea baked A BREAD.


Who baked a bread?  
- ANDREA baked a bread.

In contrast, Hungarian uses preverbal position as a focus marker, i.e. the constituent that precedes the verb is focussed:

Andrea kenyer-et süt-ött
Andrea bread-ACC bake-PAST
'Andrea baked a BREAD'

--> bread in preverbal position and therefore in focus


Andrea süt-ött   kenyer-et
Andrea bake-PAST bread-ACC  
'ANDREA baked a bread'

--> Andrea in preverbal position and therfore in focus

It should be noted that such syntactic information structure marking is to some degree also available in English (it-cleft constructions (It was a bread that she baked) for focus marking and topicalisation (The bread she didn't bake, but the cake) for topic marking), but it is less prominent than marking by accent, while other languages rarely use intonation for this kind of semantic/pragmatic information but frequently or even exclusively make use of particles or syntactic devices.

If someone knows an example form a tonal language, please complement my post (or otherweise contradict it if it can't be applied to tonal languages so easily), this was just for a general explanation of what other means language can employ to differentiate semantic or pragmatic meaning if not by intonation.


Many good points have been made in other answers and comments, but I think we need to unpack some of the assumptions (implicit and explicit) made in your question.

ASSUMPTION 1: The world's languages can be divided into the binary categories of "tone languages" and "intonational languages". This is false. All languages have intonation. A subset of those languages employ lexical tone--defined broadly as the use of pitch at an abstract level to encode lexical contrasts (i.e., meanings of words).

ASSUMPTION 2: Pitch is not used in non-tone languages to distinguish word meaning. Also false. Languages like English, which has lexical stress, use pitch acoustically to signal stress, which in turn can distinguish otherwise homophonous words with different meanings. For example, ivy vs. I.V. (intravenous device).

ASSUMPTION 3: Pitch is the only thing that encodes utterance type (like question vs. statement) in non-tone languages like English. False. Most questions in English are actually NOT cued by pitch. Wh-questions--those starting with words like who, what, when, how, etc., generally have an intonation that is similar to declarative statements. In such questions, it is the presence of the wh-word at the beginning and the inversion of the word order that signals the question. Yes-no questions most often also include changes like the inclusion of DO and the inflection for tense on DO ("Did you go to the store"), and while their intonation is often rising and distinct from that of statements, it doesn't have to be--I can say "Did you go to the store" with a pitch contour that goes down at the end if I'm being somewhat insistent and confrontational. The only type of question that is consistently cued solely by pitch is the intonational question--"You went to the store?"--which can be echoing a statement someone else just made or expressing disbelief or surprise.

ASSUMPTION 4: Pitch can only cue one thing in an utterance at a time. Again, false. Even in non-tone languages like English, pitch encodes many things in an utterance simultaneously. For example, take the utterance:

You returned Maria's IVY to the store?

Kind of a weird utterance, but the pitch contour on the word ivy is simultaneously encoding three things. One, it's signaling that the stress of the word is on the first syllable, thus distinguishing it from the word I.V. and effectively encoding lexical information. Two, it's signaling that the sentence is a question (if it were a statement, we'd get a high pitch point on the "I", but instead we get a low pitch point there because it's a question). Three, it's putting focus on the word ivy, letting the listener know that the speaker is asking about the item that was returned and not, say, where it was returned or whose item it was.

Now, all that said, the question remains--if all languages have intonation, and if some of those languages also have lexical tone, then how is pitch used in those languages with lexical tone to encode intonational functions? That is a good question, and not one that can be answered with any generalization--in other words, it depends on the language. My response to ASSUMPTION 4 above gives you some clues as to what some of the logical possibilities are, and @user6726 provides some good points and examples in this regard. Different languages reconcile tonal and intonational pitch cues differently. Please see my responses to How do sentence intonation and (syllable-based) tone interact in tone languages? and Are there tonal languages which use a rising intonation for questions?, respectively, for more on that issue.

As for your questions about singing in tone languages, that's been covered elsewhere, as @fdb and I note in the comments above. But here's a hint: if lexical meaning hinged entirely on pitch in tone languages, how could speakers of those language ever communicate with whispered speech?

  • It would be challenging, but raising and lowering the larynx changes the length of the tube, hence its resonance pattern. Practically speaking, I have no idea how Chinese speakers whisper. Surely this must have been studied.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 23:35
  • @user6726 Yes, there are subtle cues like that as well as durational and intensity cues that persist in whispered speech, but in most situations it just doesn't matter--the segmental combinations in the syllable strings of utterances usually suffice to prevent any ambiguity. My Mandarin professor used to shoot off e-mails to us in Pinyin without any tone markings, and they were never difficult to interpret. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 12:33

Meaning of different sentences is frequently signaled only by tonal differences, in tone languages. An example is the contrast in Shona between munhu akáríma "the person who plowed", munhu akarima "then the person plowed", munhu ákáríma "the person plowed" and munhu ákárimá "the person, having plowed...". As a further example, yes-no questions can be formed in Shona by lowering a final H tone, so ánoóná bhizá is "He saw a horse" and ánoóná bhiza is "Did he see a horse?". (There are also particles that can be used, and you can raise your pitch level while still maintaining the tonal contrasts of the language). This process is a tone-rule version of what some languages do with intonation.

As for "how", it basically means that speakers pay attention to pitch more than they do in e.g. English, and this isn't any different from the matter of learning to control aspiration in [p] vs [pʰ]. For SE Asian languages like Thai and especially Vietnamese, there are vowel-quality (phonatory) differences that also have to be paid attention to, so it's not all pitch.

There are accommodations in the production of tone in musical performances; the details are not well-researched. Since about a third of the languages of the world are tonal, you can expect huge variation in the phonetic implementation of tone in music. Perhaps our colleague from Ithaca can contribute on this point.


I spoke randomly chosen sentences in Cantonese but with a monotone to a Chinese friend, and she understood easily.

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