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I have heard the difference between tone and intonation described in the following way:

Tone is when the pitch of a word determines its meaning.

Intonation is when the pitch of a word conveys its importance within a sentence, or conveys other possible aspects of the speaker's attitude.

English is not considered a tonal language, but sometimes pitch does distinguish different meanings of otherwise identical-sounding words. For example, "perMIT" vs "PERmit." One of these is a noun and the other is a verb, and their meanings are related but distinct. I'm sure there are several similar examples.

So would it be fair to say English is "sometimes" tonal, or that "some words in English are tonal words"? In other words, how are situations like this reconciled with the statement that English is not tonal?

  • My go-to example of this is import. Same thing; it's a noun (an imported good) or a verb depending on stress. – Molomby Sep 10 at 5:59
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    On second thought, I'm not sure what I say. – WillG Sep 10 at 6:25
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    @Molomby a related phenomenon, yes. More common (and less annoying) when there isn't already a verb. The "woman" example is noun->adjective, instead of using "female". – OrangeDog Sep 10 at 10:39
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    @JustinLardinois really? I’ve only ever heard women’s suffrage – OrangeDog Sep 11 at 7:35
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    @alephzero I would argue that finding such a sentence isn't necessary. In Mandarin Chinese, which is considered tonal, native speakers would almost always be able to understand a sentence spoken without tones. In fact, tones are omitted in Chinese singing, but speakers still understand the lyrics. "Tonal" should mean that pitch changes the meaning of a word "in a vacuum," not that pitch is necessary to discern words in context. – WillG Sep 11 at 19:14
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"Tonal" is one of those words that everyone vaguely understands, but is annoyingly hard to actually define. Most people agree that English isn't "tonal". But there's not a clear dividing line between "tonal" and "not tonal"; it's more of a spectrum.

At one end are the truly tonal languages. In these languages, every syllable/vowel/tone-bearing-unit gets one of however many tones—it's an inherent property of the phoneme, just like how every vowel in English has a height and a frontness and a roundness. For example, in Lingála, the word mòtò means "human", while the word mòtó means "head"; the tones are an inherent property of the vowels. Mandarin is the most famous example of this, but it can be found throughout much of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

(Usually it's not quite as simple as "tone is an inherent property of the phoneme"—this is one of the reasons why autosegmental phonology was invented, to deal with some fascinatingly weird tone effects that couldn't be explained by older models. But that's worth a question, or several questions, of its own!)

One step farther down the spectrum are the pitch-accent languages, which distinguish between different tones, but the tone of a whole word is entirely determined by the placement of a single "ictus" or "accent" within it. This is what Ancient Greek and Japanese have. For example, in Ancient Greek, állà "other things" and àllá "but" are valid words, but *állá and *àllà are not. With only a few exceptions, every word has exactly one high tone (the "ictus"), and everything else is low.

One step past that are the stress-accent languages. This is what English is generally considered to be. Like pitch-accent languages, stress-accent languages have a single "ictus" in each word which determines the accentuation. But unlike in pitch-accent languages, the ictus is shown by "stress"—a vague combination of a dozen different phonetic features, including pitch. The line between pitch and stress is a blurry one, and often has more to do with convention than any phonetic measurement you can quantify.

And finally, you get the fixed-stress languages. These languages, like Hungarian, Classical Arabic, and Classical Latin, don't use tone, pitch, or stress in any phonemic way. Some syllables are still "stressed" more than others, but this is entirely predictable from the structure of the word. These languages can be said with certainty to be entirely non-tonal.

In practice, all these categories are blurry at best. How do you draw a line between pitch accent and stress accent, for example, when "stress" includes a change in pitch (like in English)? How do you draw a line between true tone and pitch accent when it's possible for a word to have multiple ictus (*), or when over half the words have no ictus at all? The best answer I can give is, these terms are useful only insofar as they elucidate or clarify explanations, and no further. Every language uses tone somewhat differently, and there's usually much, much more to tone than these categories can show. (For example, Lingála generally has phonemic tone, where every phoneme has a tone associated with it. But it also has purely tonal circumfixes: morphemes which attach on either side of a verb root and add no phonemes, only "floating" tones, which clamp themselves onto the nearest "unclaimed" vowels! Which is the coolest point in favor of autosegmental phonology I've ever seen.)

(*) The plural of ictus is also ictus. Or "ictūs" if you're especially pretentious. Blame the Romans.

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    The plural of "ictus" is also "ictopi", if you want to see how tight a linguist can clench their fists and how long and hard they can death-stare you. – David Richerby Sep 11 at 12:10
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    ...and then there are languages like (modern Seoul dialect) Korean, where there are no pre-defined stress patterns, and you can stress random syllables if you wish. – jick Sep 11 at 16:45
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The usual account of the difference is that the location of "stress" differs between perMIT and PERmit. You cannot tell the difference between tone ans stress just based on phonetics (that is, "higher F0" does not mean "H tone", because the primary phonetic correlate of stress is higher pitch). There is a misguided tendency to use Chinese as the standard of comparison for tone system, but actually Chinese is the best known but one of the least-representative types of tone systems, if we're counting numbers of languages.

It is actually very difficult to come up with any one absolute criterion, phonetic or phonological, that establishes that such-and-such is tone versus stress. Instead, people tend to resort to multiple criteria and see which property gets the most votes. "Vowel reduction", for example, is usually associated with stress, and we do find in English phonology that unstressed vowels become "reduced" (shorter, qualities neutralized often to just schwa). Also, while in English and in the normal case higher pitch correlates with stress and lower pitch correlates with unstressed, the opposite correlation is actually possible under certain intonational patterns – the main stress can have an extra-low pitch (e.g. "It's not permìtted?", the incredulity contour). As far as has been reported, intonational system in tone languages do not actually reverse pitch correlates, making H toned vowels have lower F0).

I think things are clearer if you talk about phonological analysis (tone, or stress – you could have both in on language), and phonetic correlates (relative pitch, duration, amplitude). Stress is a fairly abstract construct which usually has some pitch consequence, but the system of rules for assigning stress are completely different from the system of rules for assigning tone.

At the level of "some words", English is clearly not tonal, it simply has contrastive stress. However, there is a proposal on the market (starting with Liberman's dissertation) that intonation is tones, so since English has intonation, you could conclude that English has tones. At the same time, "tone" in the sense of intonation is a phonologically and phonetically different thing from tone in the lexico-grammatical sense (as found in tone languages like Chinese, Navaho, Punjabi, Igbo). Intonation co-exists with phonological tones – developing a coherent model of phonological tone vs. intonational overlay is a current research desideratum.

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