If we compare two unrelated languages with lexical tone, where both languages have the same number of tonal contrasts, are there any universals/tendencies regarding:

  • the kinds of tonal contrasts (rising vs falling vs contour) or
  • characteristics which make a e.g. rising tone be classified as "rising" or falling tone be classified as "falling" (i.e. is there a necessary f0 change in every tonal language). I suppose contour tones have some universal tendencies to be classified as contours, but they are probably to some extent language specific.


  • 1
    What do you mean by "rising vs falling vs contour"? Most studies say that tonal languages fall into two categories: those with contour tones (contour is when the tone changes within a syllable) and without these (e.g. only fixed tones exist, like high or low). In other words, "rising/falling" are contours, too. Commented May 7, 2017 at 13:44
  • I meant it in the distinction in e.g. Mandarin where there is a contrast between rising, falling and falling+rising. Maybe that's an inaccurate distinction though. Still, I hope my question is clear!
    – Teusz
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 13:46
  • The contrast can be very obscure. See a diagram for Thai here. Commented May 7, 2017 at 13:54
  • The pitch plot of the average Mandarin (1) "high" tone actually looks a lot like that for "rising" (2); "high" is globally higher-pitched than "rising", but "high" also rises progressively. Also the "fall-rise" or "dip" tone in practice is usually just a low tone. See slide 5 here. Commented May 7, 2017 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


Attempts to define tone types (e.g. rising, falling; mid, high, low) in terms of phonetic properties don't go very far, and crash when you try to devise rigorous criteria that apply to all tones within a language, in the same way for all languages (the strong sense of "same"). A falling tone is roughly one where F0 decreases within the syllable over time, and a rising tone is one where F0 increases within the syllable. From that definition, there are obviously no level tones in any language, because pitch goes up and down all over the place. Even if you filter out local variation by averaging F0 over evenly-spaced thirds of the syllable, there are still enough changes in pitch over these intervals that such "technically measured" level tones would be quite rare. (Two reasons for that are consonantal effects and pitch-coarticulation where an adjacent especially preceding syllable can influence a given syllable's F0 substantially).

A partial remedy for that would be to exclude syllable margins and look only at the central 2/3 of the vowel, then dividing that into subintervals. Of course, the odds of getting two means that are exactly the same are negligible, so you also need to add in a "significantly different" criterion, so that a 1 Hz drop in the mean does not define a falling tone, for example use a "2 standard deviations" criterion for deciding if two sub-intervals are "the same" or are "different". This is a potential approach to defining contour vs. level tones on strictly phonetic grounds. However: it has questionable utility, since there isn't much reason to think that phonetics actually cares about being rising, falling, or level – those are phonological concepts.

A "purely phonological" account would set aside phonetic properties entirely, and instead looks at how pitch functions in the grammar. The problem with such an approach is that what tone-types are about is some range of phonetic distinctions. When you claim that [tá] has the same tone as [dá], or that one utterance of the word [má] has the same tone as another utterance of the same word, you are claiming that the physical differences in pitch are not grammatically important, and they all instantiate a single concept ("H tone"). But you can't entirely disregard phonetic facts: it would be arbitrary to claim that [tá] has the "same tone" as [pà] or [kâ].

A phonological analysis can't be pure, but it can be minimally dependent on phonetic details, instead identifying the smallest / most revealing set of categories and operations. The common trend for H tones to rise somewhat (which could force a "rising tone" analysis on a language) and for L tones to fall somewhat (likewise imposing a "falling tone" analysis) would thus give way to a simpler theory: there are single phonological tones, H and L, and languages can have rules of phonetic implementation that spell out exactly what H or L means.

Under that kind of analysis, Mandarin's 4 tones can be analyzed as H, Rise (LH), L and Fall (HL), so only two tonal entities, and the 2 two-element combinations that H, L allow. The way this minimal phonological system is realized physically is then the domain of a phonetic study of tone in a language.

The best justification for a particular analysis of tones (esp. contours vs. level tones) comes from combination effects – the classical argument for deriving falling tone from a sequence of H plus L, argued for when a given morpheme has the tone pattern [pátà] in one context but [pât] in a context where the final vowel deletes. Unfortunately, such phonological evidence is not always available, and thus one may have to rely on formal combinatoric properties. (Northern) Vietnamese is a bit of a problem since it has 6 tones, but no non-arbitrary analysis into just 2 or 3 simple elements that freely combine. The main reason why an analysis of Vietnamese eludes us is that the language doesn't have morphological / morphophonemic processes which give rise to paradigmatic changes in tone, within a single morpheme. (The second reason is the dearth of generally-accessible information on the language. And I should mention that reduplication does appear to have some relevance for tone, but it's not clear what light that sheds on the question). I think the situation with Thai is similar.

I'm aiming to address the question of "identifying" contour tones. There is a tendency (not an absolute law) that rising contours have increasing F0 and falling contours have decreasing F0 (and level tones have steady F0), but the equation cannot be reversed, so you cannot conclude that a syllable with a measurable increase or decrease in F0 is has a contour tone. The analysis of Mandarin L-rising tone as being simply L is a case where you can't rely on pitch values to automatically provide the phonological analysis (and thus the third tone has been phonologically analysed as a low-register rise and as simply a L).

Given all that, there are a few things that could be said, in a separate narrowly-focused question, about crosslinguistic tendencies for various tones, as long as you accept a more minimalist phonological account of tone categories, as opposed to a bottom-up analysis that attempts to define tone types based on F0 measurements. (Hint)

  • From the first paragraph, I understand that it is impossible to postulate cross linguistic tonal categories based only on phonetic data because no tone is level. But what if we disregard level tones, isn't it true that rising/falling tones likewise cannot be defined from a purely phonetic perspective ? You say that rising/falling tone are phonological concepts, but isn't rising/fall f0 phonetic? I see what you mean, but I'm no sure I really understand it, intellectually.
    – Teusz
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 7:47
  • And from the phonological side, you claim "physical differences in pitch are not grammatically important, and they all instantiate a single concept ("H tone"). But you can't entirely disregard phonetic facts: it would be arbitrary to claim that [tá] has the "same tone" as [pà] or [kâ]." -- but physical differences in pitch are a kind of contradiction, since pitch is perceived f0. If speakers perceive rising tone in one word to have the same tone in another word (or to rhyme, or whatever), wouldn't that be evidence enough to motivate a particular tonal category?
    – Teusz
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 7:53
  • 1
    Nobody actually assigns pitch categories based on experimental results from perception tests. But one could try: and that would be one kind of physical difference. Again, the point is that a phonological categorization has to refer to something physical. My specific example was intended to point to a case where a perception test could not possibly perceive the 3 syllables as "tonally the same". If you think a valid experiment along those lines is possible, you might ask about that.
    – user6726
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 15:05

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