After reading through the Tone Wikipedia page, I get the gist of it. Basically there are register tone systems (like Bantu languages) and contour tone systems (like Mandarin Chinese). In contour tone systems, the shape of the curve of the tone of a syllable is what creates a distinct sound (phoneme if I understand correctly). In register systems it's the relative pitch as you move between sounds/phonemes.

That all makes sense for the most part.

The register systems I've seen have basically tone up, tone down, and perhaps tone neutral. So you just move up and down or stay the same. This leads to systems with 2 or 3 tones. That makes sense (it seems).

Also, a lot of the systems with 5 or 6 "tones" seem to be contour systems, so that makes sense. You can have an arbitrary number of contours theoretically, as opposed to register systems which can pretty much just go down and up.

What I'm confused about is 4 or 5-level register systems. For example, Kuteb has 4 or 5 tones: low (unmarked), mid (¯), high (´), falling (ˆ), and rising (ˇ). 5 seems to be the limit for register systems. I don't understand how you can have more than 3 tones in a register system (up/down/neutral). Wondering what the other two are.

Wondering if one could demonstrate in English what a short phrase might look like if it involved 5 register tones. Maybe along the lines of this:

We all went to the store.

That is the base sentence. But then we can add some register tones like this:

 + +    -    -   +   -
We all went to the store.

I am assuming that you can go up twice (e.g. the + +) before coming down, in a 5-tone register system. But that doesn't seem right, seems like an arbitrary limitation. It also seems like you can get messed up if you spread the tone changes across words, in that you might end the sentence without having gotten back down to neutral. So I'm confused there as well, how do you "resolve" the tones (i.e. they can't go up forever, they can't go down forever, they need to hover around some middle tone, but I don't see how to guarantee you always get back there).

So wondering if one could demonstrate a contrived English example showing how a 5-tone register system might work across multiple words.

  • The tone systems in Bantu languages don't tend to be "upstep" and "downstep" so much as "high" and "low", in my experience. Every vowel is spoken either with a high pitch or a low pitch.
    – Draconis
    Sep 6, 2018 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


It is unfortunate that the Wikipedia page promulgates the dubious distinction between register systems and contour systems. Mandarin Chinese has two tone registers (ergo the high-rising and low-rising tones); many Bantu languages have contrasts in level, rising and falling tones, but also don't employ downstep and have only two lexical registers. You may want to read Ken Pike's book Tone Languages: A Technique for Determining the Number and Type of Pitch Contrasts in a Language, with Studies in Tonemic Substitution and Fusion, which sets for the distinction based no what he knew at the time. But I don't deny that the terminology historically was used, and we just have to deal with it.

The concept of register does two things for tonal analysis. First, it is used to organize primitive levels. For example, Ewe has 4 tone levels (and has no contour tones), which we can label (from lowest to highest) L, M, H, R (R standing for 'raised H'). These tones phonologically organize so that L,M are 'a group', and H, R are 'a group'. There is a rule where M→R when between H,R tones. The analysis is that these tones basically organize into L versus H tones, but there is also a lower register vs. a higher register, so L in the lower register is called 'L' and L in the higher register is called 'H'; H in the lower register is called M and H in the higher register is called R.

The other thing that register does is define global shifts in reference pitch. In some languages, you can bounce back and forth between L and H tone and the Ls are more or less at the same level, and the Hs are more or less at the same level: L and H are computed relative to a single reference value. This is the case, for example, in Lingala (one guy's dialect), and Matumbi. But there are also languages like Shona where in an utterance with the sequence L H L H L H, every time you make the transition L H, you redefine that reference value, so numerically if we use 1 as the highest value, the pitch sequence of the above would come out something like 3 1 4 2 5 3 (this is probably the most common system in Bantu, with a caveat that the languages often also have 'downstep', q.v.). This phenomenon of automatic global lowering is known as 'downdrift'. The concept 'register' is involved based on the premise that H and L are defined relative to a reference value – the register – and the register can be lowered by rule. There is no principled limit to how many times pitch register can drop, though there are practical considerations on how low you can go (speakers plan ahead; speakers sometimes have to reset).

The aforementioned feature 'downdrift' is phonetically transparent, since it is triggered by an overt L; but many (maybe most) languages with this feature do not require an overt L, and then you can get lowering between phonologically identical tones. This is called 'downstep', and is traditionally marked with a raised exclamation mark (or the symbol ꜜ). It is actually not possible to tell by simple listening whether a language has three levels (H, M, L) or two levels plus downstep. The concept of downstep was thus introduced by Winston in a paper on the so-called mid tone of Efik. There is an analogous property of register raising which is attested in exactly one language, Acatlan Mixtec, where tones can recursively (and contrastively) increase register value (thus the basic tones go up, up, up and not down, down, down).

There is obviously some redundancy in this way of conceptualizing tones, because L is 'step down from H', but downstep is ‘step down’. Without knowledge of Acatlan Mixtec, we might say that 'basic tone' can involve both 'step up' (L to H) and 'step down' (H to L), but register only involves 'step down'. In fact, though, step up and step down are operations both at the register level and at the level of basic tone. There have been (distinct) theories by Keith Snider and Mary Clark which attempt to have a single raising vs. lowering operation. You can read this paper for an overview that focuses on African tone systems and points to some of the less-frequent patters regarding basic levels and downstep operations. The point is that there is a phonological distinction between lexical level, where a given syllable can, in isolation, have one of 2 levels in a 2-level language like Shona, 3 levels in a 3-level language like Yoruba, and so on, up to 6 attested levels in Chori.

I would say that the question of whether a language also has contour tones is synchronically orthogonal, although we know from comparative studies that languages like 5-level Kuteb (which does have rising and falling tones) and 6-level Chori developed these extra levels by flattening out earlier contour tones (however, that is not the only source of level-splits, which also arise because of properties of preceding consonants). There is probably a perceptual tradeoff that it is really hard to distinguish 5 levels of tone plus maintain all of the possible rises and falls that 5 tones allow, and thus the number of contours is usually fewer than the number you would predict by free combination of levels.

  • Any chance you could expand on 'which also arise because of properties of preceding consonants'? I am finding for example that there is often a steep fall in pitch on the transition from an unvoiced consonant to a vowel, which seems to mess with the contours. It would be explicable though if the transition forced a fast drop and there then had to be a correction.
    – user23078
    Mar 25, 2019 at 16:41
  • That's really a separate question, worth thinking about in it's own right. There is a lot of literature on consonant tone effects (and we don't want to lose focus by putting everything in one q&a).
    – user6726
    Mar 25, 2019 at 17:12
  • a very nice answer indeed!
    – shabunc
    Mar 25, 2019 at 21:31

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