According to https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_language

A tone language, or tonal language, is a language in which words can differ in tones (like pitches in music) in addition to consonants and vowels...

"Mother" is "ma" that is high and level.

How does this work given that different people have different ranges of tones they can easily generate? For example, an adult male trying to pronounce a high pitch, might emit something that would be a rather low pitch for a small child, which would be problematic if he is trying to pronounce the Mandarin word for "mother".

Do speakers of tonal languages, interpret pitch as high or low, not in the sense of absolute frequency, but relative to the range of pitch the speaker is using? If so, do other cues play a part in this, such as visual cues regarding what range of pitch the speaker is likely to be able to emit? Or if not, how does it work?

  • 3
    Yes, relative to the speaker’s general pitch and, more importantly, to surrounding tones. If a language has two level tones, one high and one mid, and you heard and unfamiliar speaker utter only a single syllable with a level tone, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of the level tones was uttered. But if the speaker uttered a level tone and then a lower level tone, you’d immediately know which was which by their relative pitch. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 at 22:52
  • 4
    The Simple English Wikipedia article is misleading. Most tonal languages have a mix of register tones and contour tones and usually more of the latter. Only the register tones are "like pitches in music". And even that's a simplification. Look to Vietnamese and you will see that "tones" differ in length and even other phonation qualities like "creaky" or "breaking". The word "tone" is misleading and the usual wrong conclusion is thinking of tones as musical notes or pitches. They're actually about throat control. – hippietrail Jun 10 at 2:13

It it is relative to the "current range". That is determined by a number of things. First, individuals have a certain range as a consequence of their anatomy. Second, languages can specify (in a social sense, not a strictly grammatical sense) that the range exploited in speech should be relatively high or relatively low. Variants of such whole-language positioning of the pitch frame of reference are found for various social groupings, e.g. high pitch may be a sign of status, or may be expected of females, and so on.

Third, there is usually a certain range of variation for stylistic / pragmatic functions, so that lowering the reference pitch might convey doubt or anger and raising it might convey excitement.

At this point we have narrowed down the range of pitch by reference to many semi-social and physical factors: we can call that the "register" in which tones are realized. A metaphorical way to look at "register" is that it is a box inside other boxes, and various rules (social or grammatical) determine how tall the box is, and where it sits inside the next box out.

One last factor regarding pitch range is that language have a phonetic tendency to continuously lower the box defining register, sometimes over the last few syllables but sometimes throughout the utterance. This lowering, known as downdrift, may be purely non-contrastive so that if we assign pitch numbers to H and L tones, a sequence like HLHLHLHL comes out as 9-6-8-5-7-4-6-3. In that case, H and L can be locally defined in terms of a current register value, then H is L+3. Initially, L i.e. the bottom of the register might be set at 6, but at every transition from L to H the register value decreases by 1. However, this process of register lowering might be phonologically unpredictable (not just triggered by changing from L to H), and then we call it downstep.

There are, potentially, significant problems of comprehensibility arising in a language with highly-contrastive tone (where you have e.g. 5 tone levels and many minimal pairs so that "ma" on some pitch is potentially 5-ways ambiguous. However, once a person utters two syllables, the ambiguity is decreased, and within not much time at all, a listener can have established what a speaker's personal pitch range is. People may use visual cues if they can see, or other auditory voice-quality cues to make reasonable guesses about physiologically-based factors governing an individual's pitch range. Or they may just be confused for a moment, until they get used to the individual. Since the listener is likely to be first exposed to fixed expressions like "Hello, I am pleased to meet you. Please come in", the chances of actual confusion are diminished.


As others have remarked, pitch level (high, medium, low) is defined in terms of the natural voice range of a given individual. However, in many tonal languages, “tone” encompasses not only pitch, but also contour (level, rising, falling, falling and rising, etc.), and phonation (plain, glottalized, breathy, creaky etc.). These factors mean that tone can be perceived even if the listener has not been able to determine the scope of the speaker's voice.

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