I'm not a linguist and only studying a linguistic subject as an elective so I hope this makes sense:

If I've determined a language is tonal based off the numbers assigned to each word, how am I to interpret a word that has no number assigned to it?

For example:

Naw5 tsi5 uasi hau4 lu1 va2

How should I interpret uasi?

The things I'm wondering are: Can this word be voiced in any tone? Is there a neutral tone of sorts that this word adopts? Is there a specific term used to describe this absence?

1 Answer 1


There is no way to know without specific information from the source. In some traditions it means "toneless, unstressed". In some traditions, a specific tone is left out – it could be H, L, or Mid. It could mean "the same as what comes before" (the Christaller system, used in some African languages).

  • Okay great, thank you for your info. As there are a few examples that I have, including this one, which do state the tone number even if it is the same as what has come before it, I'm going to assume that in this case it is not that. Although that is very handy to know. Toneless/unstressed is looking good, nice to know that this exists in some langs and manifests in different ways. TY
    – Rustang
    May 12, 2020 at 0:22
  • Do you know what language this is, or what the source of the data is?
    – user6726
    May 12, 2020 at 0:34
  • Unfortunately not, the source of data is simply an assignment sheet with a few other sentence examples. The assignment asks for a summary description of the unknown language, the inclusion of these words with no tonal number may not actually be necessary / appropriate to touch on but it piqued my interest nonetheless.
    – Rustang
    May 12, 2020 at 0:47
  • 3
    @blewittrb The biggest (by number of speakers) example of a neutral-tone word not having any tone marker is Mandarin: the vast majority of syllables have tones, but a number of particles, the repeated element in a reduplicated entity, and some complements (especially resultative and directional ones) have no inherent tone: their tonal contour depends on the preceding ‘full’ tone. These are transcribed with no tone marker; e.g., 妈 ‘mother’, 麻 ‘hemp’, 马 mǎ ‘horse’, 骂 ‘scold, curse_, 吗 ma a particle that marks a yes/no question. May 12, 2020 at 7:50
  • Cool! @JanusBahsJacquet, how insightful, thanks for the example.
    – Rustang
    May 14, 2020 at 12:49

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