So in Spanish and other languages there are accents like:


And in Chinese there are tone shifts as in this graphic:

enter image description here

The tones are accounted for in English / Romanization by adding accent marks:

1. mā
2. má
3. mǎ
4. mà
5. ma

In the Spanish case, the accent is for emphasis (like giving more force or focus to the sound), while in Chinese the accent is for tonality, or the curve in your tone.

So there are these two features I'm referencing:

  1. Emphasis/focus/oomph.
  2. Tonality curving.

I am wondering if there are any other language features along the lines of these. Not sure if the umlaut would count. (I'm not talking about accent marks in the written language, of which there are all kinds of examples, I'm just talking about variations in the sound). I would just consider the umlaut another flat sound, since all the sounds already vary in the way your mouth is shaped. So I guess the list could expand some more:

  1. Emphasis/focus. (Spanish café)
  2. Tonality curving. (Chinese má)
  3. Mouth shape. (All languages)
  4. Tone. (Not in English at least, only in music does tone count).
  5. Duration. (How long the sound is held. Also not in English, not sure about other languages).

So I'm wondering if one could expand this list with the other "sound-based" features of different languages as a whole, and for the ones I listed that don't exist in English (Tone and Duration), if any examples could be provided of these in other languages.

Wondering if these other features are captured in the written languages as well.


These types of variations are generally called distinctive features, and some theories of phonology like to specify all features of a phoneme using them.

The main ones for vowels are:

  • Frontness/backness: where is the tongue closest to the roof of the mouth? /u/ is back, while /i/ is front.
  • Height: how close is the tongue to the roof of the mouth? /u/ is high, /a/ is low.
  • Rounding: are the lips rounded or not? /y/ (German ü) is rounded, /i/ is unrounded.
  • Length: how long is the vowel pronounced for? In English, the vowel in bat is short, while the vowel in bad is long.
  • Pitch: what frequency is the vowel spoken at? This is how tones and pitch accents work.
  • Nasality: is air escaping out the nose? This is most commonly associated with French words like blanc by English-speakers.
  • Laryngealization: can the individual vibrations of the vocal folds be heard? Common among young female English-speakers and widely derided by prescriptivists; phonemic in Danish, where it's called stød.
  • ATR: in theory this has to do with the position of the root of the tongue, though in practice it tends to be used to shoehorn unrelated effects into the system of distinctive features. Some analyses of English use this for the "long" vs "short" vowels (bat/bate, cut/cute, rot/rote, etc).

But there are many others as well, and many of these are continua instead of binaries: for example, you can have a low vowel or a high vowel, but also a mid vowel in between (like /e/ or /o/).

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  • Wondering if pitch is written down in the written languages anywhere, I haven't seen pitch in writing other than music. Maybe hello^{C#} for saying the O in C# lol, or he_llo^ for (he quiet/low, lo high and loud). Something along those lines. – Lance Pollard Aug 29 '18 at 20:35
  • Now I'm wondering how we learn the stresses/durations of the vowels like bad and bat in English :) – Lance Pollard Aug 29 '18 at 20:38
  • @LancePollard Mandarin Chinese for example uses pitch: versus is a difference in pitch contour. Ancient Greek also: in the word ánthropōs "person" the first vowel is high pitch and the rest are low pitch. – Draconis Aug 29 '18 at 21:10
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    @LancePollard In English, it depends on the voicing of the following consonant. – Draconis Aug 29 '18 at 21:10
  • (Gah, I find the typo once the editing window ends: that Greek example should of course be ánthrōpos, not *ánthropōs. – Draconis Aug 30 '18 at 16:06

"Accent" is a term that applies to writing systems, i.e. acute, grave, circumflex accept. Unfortunately, it is also a term used to refer to a specific phonetic property (Japanese is claimed to have it, likewise Norwegian). That sense of the term might be used to refer to what we do in English, called "stress", i.e. the stress is on the last syllable in the verb progress, and on the first syllable in the noun progress. Your question seems to be about the linguistic uses of these accent diacritics. Before addressing that, I need to point out that there is an essential sameness to Chinese tones and Spanish stresses, that they are realized as pitch modulations. The abstract phonological treatment of the physical signal is, however, different (though in some case it's not at all obvious that there is a substantial difference, as in the case of "pitch accent" in Norwegian and Japanese).

These accents are extremely useful for writing languages. For example, a versus á in North Saami (Sámi) denote a shorter back vowel vs a longer front vowel, respectively. They indicate long (accented) vowels in Hungarian and Czech vs short (plain). Many languages which are tonal use them to mark tone; Sotho (which is tonal) uses them to note vowel quality (tone is ignored, because they already have too many vowels to conveniently mark). Many other languages mark stress with accents. Italian uses acute and grave to indicate stress and vowel quality: pèsca = [ˈpɛska] "peach", pésca= [ˈpeska] "fishing". Catalan likewise uses accepts to indicate vowel qualities. They are also used on consonants in Polish to indicate palatalization. A number of languages also use the circumflex and inverted circumflex for consonants, thus N. Saami ž = [dʒ]. I'm not aware of a complete-ish compendium of uses of accent diacritics.

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