I’m studying feature geometry in my intro to phono course, and we’re looking at tone. One topic which I have trouble getting my head around is the “tonal motivation” for autosegmental phonology; namely, the requirement to distinguish between rising+falling tone and falling+rising tone in the same language. I understand that feature matrices cannot account for this because the “members” of a matrix are unordered with respect to one another, so it’s not possible to have a +high, - high contour “/” contrast with a -high, +high contour “/“ in the same language. What language makes this distinction? 

Also, probably stupid question but why not just postulate a feature “concave tone” and a feature “convex tone”? Thanks! 

  • 2
    The Min Dong dialect of Fuzhou is canonically described as having falling-rising and rising-falling tones (both coming from the historical 去声 of Middle Chinese)
    – Michaelyus
    Nov 28, 2016 at 13:52
  • "Why not just postulate...two different features?" That would be weird because it would allow the abstract system to represent a tone with both positive features, which I am supposing in reality it is not possible. I think it would be better (and don't they) to propose something beyond binary, something more than two valued.
    – Mitch
    Nov 28, 2016 at 18:22
  • Are you suggesting that mutual incompatibilities should follow from the notational system?
    – user6726
    Nov 28, 2016 at 23:47

1 Answer 1


The simple existence of level or contoured tones in a language is not a problem for the SPE theory of representations, which is why when the focus was on just reducing tone contrasts to some minimal system of pluses and minuses, it was always possible to come up with an arrangement. You find rising and falling tones along with level tones in various "dialects" of Chinese, Vietnamese, Zapotec, Mande, Kru. A really simple reason why a large number of tones doesn't matter is that you can enumerate them Chinese-style ("Tone 1, Tone 2..."), and any number can be trivially translated into a system of plus and minus values, for example an 8-tone language requires only 3 features.

The problem of contours really stems from the need to group together subsets of tones into "natural classes", because in rule systems, particular subsets of tones often act together. So just as [p t tʃ k] often act together in a way that [p t tʃ l] do not, you find recurrent groupings in tonology. The interesting thing is that the possible groupings looks completely unconstrained if you just look at the tone-pairings, but if you look at the pairings plus their order relative to the trigger sets (and the composition of the set), tone groupings become very limited. An example is that H becomes F before L and R: but, H becomes R after L and F. L becomes R before H and H, but L becomes F after H and R. The various other "level becomes contour" possibilities that you predict from randomly grouping together two of the tones {H L R F} either before or after the target tone simply don't exist.

The explanation for this is straightforward if you decompose R into "L+H" and F into "H+L", so these processes reduce to H → H+L / _ {L,L+H}; H → L+H / {L,H+L} _; L → L+H / _ {H,H+L}; and L → H+L / {H,L+H} __. Which generalizes to "attach the preceding/following tone to this tone".

  • Excellent. Thanks for the thoughtful and perceptive response.
    – Teusz
    Nov 30, 2016 at 14:20

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