Imagine i gave you recordings of a few syllables in an unknown language, but told you that there are H and L tones in that language. In that case you could probably distinguish H from the L syllables using only the f0, correct? If so: This means that there is something universal about phonetic realization of tone.

Let's say now that I didn't tell you which tones were in the language, so you don't know if it's a H, L, HL, LH language, or just a H vs L language, or even that it's not a tone language at all. In that case, I guess you couldn't distinguish categories of tones, correct? If so: This means that there is something language specific about the realization of tone,

I wonder what you think about the two ideas above. Thanks

2 Answers 2


For ease of reference, let's give names to your experiments:

Experiment 1:

  • Data: recordings of a few sample syllables. For the sake of argument, let's assume the syllables are canonical recordings, and you've avoided nontonal pitch transformations such as prosody, downstep etc.
  • Data: the information: "this is an HL language".
  • Expected result: I can identify the HL tones.

Experiment 2:

  • Data: recordings of a few sample syllables as above.
  • Result: I cannot identify whether the language is tonal, nor whether the tones are high or medium or rising etc.

Does experiment 1 necessarily succeeds?

Assume a language A with the following tone sandhi rules, where each letter stands for the pitch of a single syllable:

  • /H#/ → [H]
  • /L#/ → [L]
  • /HH/ → [RH] (raises to high)
  • /LL/ → [FL] (falls to low)
  • /HHH/ → [LRH]
  • /LLL/ → [HFL]

[L] can be either /L/ or /H/, depending on its position. If you just give me isolated syllables, I can't know the phonemic tone. (Many other phonetic transformations could be imagined; perhaps /H/ tones end up lower-pitched than /L/ tones when the /H/ is between nasals and the /L/ follows an aspirate, etc.)

But let's say you're not worried about contextual tone phonetics like that. You want to know about good standard canonical cases where high tones are higher in pitch, dammit. So we do a modified experiment 1':

  • Data: recordings of a few sample syllables. These are the canonical-est realizations of each tone, not subject to any sort of phonetic or contextual transformation.
  • Data: the information: "this is an HL language".

Now I can identify the high-tone syllables—but that's a trivial result, because I've been told what to find (I know that the language is tonal, that its tones are distinguished by high and low pitch, and that they're not subject to pitch changes). Experiment 1' amounts to giving me the territory and the map; of course I can find stuff on it, but that tells us nothing about universals. For example, if I tried to infer an universal from it, I might wrongly conclude that /H/ tones are always realized higher in pitch than /L/ tones, even in a world where languages like language A exists.

Does experiment 2 show that languages have something specific in the phonetic realization of tones?

Assume for the sake of argument a restricted universe where all tonal languages realize tone in exactly the same way: /H/ is always a simple level high-pitch, and /L/ is always a simple level low-pitch.

Let's postulate a non-tonal language, say language B, with the following phonetic behavior: aspirated consonants cause high-falling pitch, unaspirated stops cause medium-level pitch, and voiced consonants cause low-rising pitch, except that the first syllable of a word is always low-rising. From this data, I can't even tell whether B is tonal or not; from my point of view, pitch seems to be all over the place. And yet, in this universe, every single tonal language has exactly the same phonetic realization of tones.

So the answer is again no; I can't conclude anything about tone universals (or lack thereof) from experiment 2.

As an aside, it's worth noting that in the real world, tone is not just pitch.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful answer and particularly for the link you posted at the end. Definitely food for thought. I was particularly surprised to see that the authors challenged the objectivity of f0. I need to think about that some more! Unfortunately the article to which that ppt refers is behind a paywall. From the abstract I gather that the authors show that tone is not just pitch or f0, but something else (?) too. But just what that something else is, is not identified. Is that accurate?
    – Teusz
    May 9, 2017 at 6:39
  • @Teusz they're yet unsure, but it's likely a combination of timbre/quality (spectrum/formants and temporal envelope) and duration. Surprisingly, if you give them only quality/timing and no f0, Mandarin speakers can identify tones better than if you give then only f0 and no quality (though f0 plays a role too). So "tone" is not just pitch, and moreover "pitch" (the human sensation of high/low sounds) isn't simply f0 either, so between f0 and tone there are two levels of indirection. May 9, 2017 at 8:36
  • 1
    There's a PDF available here. May 9, 2017 at 8:39

There are problems with your experimental set-up, but we can fix that. The first is that what you tell me shouldn't count. I might tend to believe certain specialists who have proven to be credible, but you always have to determine the facts yourself. It might be more surprising to discover a tonal dialect of Dutch (or would have been until such things became widely known) or a non-tonal dialect of Vietnamese, but determining the existence of nature of a tonal system is not dependent on what you were told. A responsible researcher would have a factual basis for rejecting a hypothesis (e.g. that there is tone). I can't tell if you are asking what role expectation has in the conduct of fieldwork – I don't think you are (because that's a question about researcher state of mind, not linguistic fact). However, there might be an interesting experiment to develop along those lines, where you prank a set of field linguists. Give them data from a language (or, fake language synthesized by rule) with, say, 2 levels and 2 contours, and then tell subjects either "This language has no tone", "This language has 2 levels and 2 contours", or "This language has 4 levels and 6 contours": then set them to transcribing. The underlying hypothesis would be that the instructions strongly influence the outcome. The main problem is that there aren't enough reasonably-qualified subjects for such an experiment.

The second problem is that "recordings of a few syllables in an unknown language" are scientifically useless and I would even say dangerous. That is not how you go about determining tonal categories in an unknown language (recordings of a few syllables cannot distinguish systematic pattern from random variation). Let's change the context, so that you have a lexicon of a couple hundred citation words, and a sufficient supply of longitudinally-controlled tokens (i.e. not a single reading of a word list in one session).

The case where "I didn't tell you which tones were in the language" is the normal case in fieldwork. That lack of knowledge does not mean that you can't distinguish tonal categories; and the fact (and it is a fact) that there is something language specific about the realization of tone does not mean that linguists are incapable of discerning a tonal system on their own.

I propose that the question you really want an answer to is "how does one go about figuring out the tonal categories of a language: does the method require certain assumptions of universality?". However, a vague reference to universality really should be replaced with a more specific statement about what the status of the 'universal' is. Naming tendencies might be "universal", in that Mandarin 1st tone is more likely to be called "High" and 3rd tone is more likely to be called "Low" than the reverse; and it is unlikely that 1st tone would be called "Brown" (vs. "Yellow"). But that doesn't tell you about language, that tells you about sound-symbolism. "Universal" is used in many ways in linguistics, so you need to be more specific about ontological status of the "universal" yuo're probing.

FYI your question resembles a version of the Hale & Reiss card grammar problem. I disagree with their conclusion, because I don't think that auditory perception is always in terms of phonological features, even when the substance being sensed is linguistic in nature. The specific issue there is whether phonological properties have to be grammatically pre-wired in terms of substance – they seem to say it does, I say it doesn't – it can be learned.

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