After looking into the IPA for some words in tonal languages, I am starting to see things like ăn (Vietnamese), which are transcribed with two like tone marks, like ʔan˧˧. What does it mean when two tone marks are next to each other like that? I have seen other cases, where there are 3 tone marks and two are the same, like maː˩˩˦ (หมา). What do these mean? Is it just a long vowel + tone?

You see others like t͡ɕəːj˧˧, which has both long marker and two like tones, so not sure.

In case your font is doing fancy things, I see it basically like this (without the added spaces):

  • ʔan˧ ˧
  • maː˩ ˩ ˦
  • t͡ɕəːj˧ ˧
  • While it is true that in Chinese tonal tradition notations like "55" are uses, you seem to be implying that those three words have double tone marking in their IPA transcriptions, but I see only one. So, huh??
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 4:22
  • 2
    Those are not "double tones". They are called "contour tones". Contour tones change pitch from beginning to end and sometimes in the middle. The tones that do not change are called "register tones". Depending on your OS, browser, and font, the multiple IPA tone characters might be drawn as one character with the horizontal part going up and down to show the contour. Some people like to use the same number of IPA tone characters for register tones as for contour tones which is why you sometimes see two or three identical ones in a row. Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 14:18
  • What font should I be using. To my eyes there are clearly two identical tone glyphs next to each other in all examples, and I don't know what that means.
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 18:56
  • Yellow Sky's answer details it all very well. Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 13:03

1 Answer 1


Several tone glyphs in a row are used in the languages that have contour tones, the tones which can change within the syllable. The first tone glyph shows the pitch at which the tone begins, the last tone glyph shows the pitch at which the tone ends, so with ʔan˧˧ the tone is level (begins and ends at the same pitch), it is the Ngang (level) tone, but with maː˩˩˦, which is in the “rising” tone, the tone doesn't go up at once, it stays low for a while and only then rises. If just two tone glyphs were used here, it would show the smooth rise from the initial low to the final high pitch, so in order to represent this Thai tone correctly, one more, the second low glyph is added to show the flat beginning after which the pitch goes up.

For the Thai tone, see this section, study the charts, the graph, and listen to the audio illustrations there.

Vietnamese tones are more complicated, they are 6 and they are different among dialects, here is a brief explanation (actually not very brief).

As for the OS, browser, and font used, what appears as maː˩ ˩ ˦ for you in the Thai word, looks different for me in my Windows 10 Google browser, the three tone glyphs being combined into one glyph, that's because I have another Unicode version than you, I suppose. I see it like this:
enter image description here

The vowel length and the tone are separate entities, most languages with contour tones can have the same tone on both a short and a long vowel. In IPA, it is only the length symbol ː on a monophthong that shows the vowel is long, the tone glyphs say nothing about the vowel length.

  • It makes sense now for maː˩ ˩ ˦, as it is proportioned. But what about for ʔan˧ ˧, why don't they just use one tone marker? If it has nothing to say about duration, why not just include only 1 tone mark?
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 1:46
  • @Lance - The whole story and usage of those IPA tone glyphs is described here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_letter : “for languages that have basic contour tones, and among these are level tones, it's a common convention to use double tone letters for those level tones, and single tone letters for short checked tones, as in Taiwanese Hokkien [sã˥˥] vs [tit˥].”
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 2:24
  • 2
    @Lance Per that Wikipedia page, "Long level-tone letters are commonly used for non-checked syllables and short letters for checked syllables, though this is not an IPA distinction." Is the question about what "checked" means?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 5:25
  • 1
    @hippietrail - The Phonology of Standard Chinese, 2nd ed., 2007, Oxford, by San Duanmu states Mandarin does have long vowels in open syllables, they are not phonemes, but surface sounds, still e.g. 馬 ma3 horse is pronounced with [aː]. As for spaces between the tone letters, they are there to prevent them from combining into a single symbol
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 20:13
  • 1
    @YellowSky: I actually wondered that and often pronounce it like that too, but had never read or heard anywhere that it was the case. Thanks for clearing it up! Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 6:12

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