In proper tonal languages such as cantonese or mandarin, the phones a phoneme comprises of share the same tone. In other words, mā (in pinyin) and má are clearly different phonemes.

If I were to look up the phonemes of English, there would be no mention of stress despite the fact that e.g. "insight" and "incite" differ only on stress.

Likewise in Japanese, as I understand it, はし (箸, chopsticks) and はし (橋, bridge) differ only in pitch.

Neither English nor Japanese are considered "tonal", and in these languages there aren't separate stressed/non-stressed and up-pitch/down-pitch phonemes. Why is this the case?

(I have no formal training whatsoever in linguistics but I'm happy to do some in-depth reading.)

  • 2
    mā (in pinyin) and má are clearly different morphemes, not phonemes. Did you mean morphemes?
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:16
  • 2
    Most modern linguistics analyses consider pitch accent systems like Japanese to be a subset of tonal systems. Check out Moira Yip, Tone, for a complete argument about why this is so. Briefly, stress happens at a different level and is a separate mechanism (it can indeed coexist and interact with tone as it does in Shanghai); but pitch accent is simply the same linguistic mechanism as tone, with added restrictions (e.g. maximum of 1 phonemic tone per accent phrase). Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:29
  • (cont) for Japanese in particular we have historical documentation of a previous stage of the language where tonal melodies were unrestricted, and certain tone sequences map pretty much directly to current accent positions. So the analysis of pitch accent as "tonal system with lexical restrictions" is easy to watch historically, because the restrictions were added later on. Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:33
  • The Great Vowel Shift changes to the vowels of English affected only stressed vowels, so stress is significant for the history of the phonemic system. If you believe the SPE analysis of English, it is also part of the present phonological system.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 17:19
  • The set of vowels that occurs in unstressed English syllables is different from the set of vowels that occurs in stressed ones.
    – jlawler
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 17:38

1 Answer 1


Whether we call something a "phoneme" or not depends on the kind of theory and analysis. It’s just an arbitrary tool of description. Some linguists will lump together tones and vowels/consonants as "phonemes", if your definition of "phoneme" is some property of speech that distinguishes meaning. In other analyses tones may be categorised separately as "tonemes". More often, tones are analysed as non-segmental phonemes; these are superposed to (pronounced together with) the segmental phonemes, i.e. vowels and consonants.

Likewise, if you're defining "phonemic" as "able to distinguish meaning", then English is said to have phonemic stress. This is marked in IPA phonemic transcription (a notation for phonemes) as a symbol resembling a single quote: insight /ˈɪnsaɪt/ vs. incite /ɪnˈsaɪt/ (where ˈ marks the phonemic stress).

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