I took some Mandarin in college and I believe (IIRC) the concept of tones was introduced to us English speakers by showing how we use "rising tone" for questions.

But a comment to a recent question asserts that mostly English uses "intonation" as opposed to tones to convey meaning.

So: Is what is the difference between "intonation" and "tones" and if so, does English use anything similar to Mandarin tones to convey meaning? (I note that there are separate tags for the two terms.)

Please give examples.

  • 1
    Not in a lexical way like Chinese. But there is a lot of use of short intonation patterns, often just hummed or whistled, or placed on nonsense syllables like uh-huh. I once had a grad student in linguistics analyze the various conversational English two-syllable tonemes: uh-huh expressing agreement, disagreement, doubt, anxiety, impatience, and any number of other communicationally useful things. He got around 25 before he quit.
    – jlawler
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:32
  • @jlawler: "Lexical" means that there are no cases where a word might mean, say "mother" with one tone and "horse" with another? I actually wonder if throughout English where, at least informally, some noun or verb has an actually, if only slightly, different meaning depending upon tone. But a question changes none of the words to refer to different things, I see that.
    – releseabe
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:36
  • 2
    The general distinction between intonation and tone is that tone applies to individual words (or morphemes or similar – singular lexical items of some description), whereas intonation applies to utterances. As such, tones have the ability to distinguish lexical meaning (‘mother’ vs ‘horse’), while intonation does not (since utterances do not encode lexical meaning but combinations of lexical meaning). All languages use intonation, without exception; only some use tones. Feb 20, 2023 at 21:54
  • I have already answered this under the other question. Intonation in English is suprasegmental and not semantic. In Chinese, tones are semantic. Different tones carry different meaning. For example, (and one often given to Western language speakers) is the word ma which can have four different tones: rising, falling, rising-falling or neutral (flat). Each one means something different. That is the simplest explanation. In English, intonation can change meaning as emphasis but not the semantics of an utterance., And I don't understand why this question is being posed again.
    – Lambie
    Feb 20, 2023 at 23:09
  • 1
    Some varieties of English like South African English have minimal tonal pairs of words.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 21, 2023 at 1:37

2 Answers 2


The question depends on two concepts: "meaning" and "tone". Tone is a phonological classification of Fo values into a small number of discrete values, e.f. H, L, Rising, Falling. It's very unclear what people mean by "meaning" especially in light of the broad "meaning" subcategory "usage", but the concept of "semantic interpretation" is much clearer. It refers to lexical meaning ("horse, mother, hemp, eat, 5...") and compositional, propositional meaning (truth values) like the difference between "I saw you" and "you saw me".

Like all languages, English modulates Fo of utterances in infinitely many ways – there aren't just a few tonal categories, analogous to the few tonal phonemes that exist in Chinese. So what happens in English isn't tone. Also what it signals is not semantics, it is pragmatics, i.e. "about how you use the sentence". You can use rising intonation to ask a question, or to fit in with a certain social group, or to express impatience. It isn't used to signal singular or plural, or subject or object, or past vs. future, it is used to do certain things with words.

So English intonation is not at all like Chinese tone. Perhaps what is confusing is that English stress functions in a manner that is weakly similar to tone in Chinese, given the difference between permit and permit.

  • I understand permit changing based on stress which I had not thought of -- as you say, not tone but analogous. Perhaps among the hundreds of thousands of words in English, tone actually does affect meaning.
    – releseabe
    Feb 21, 2023 at 5:21

As far as I know, all spoken languages have intonation. Intonation reaches across word boundaries to affect the pronunciation of an entire sentence or larger bit of discourse. It's common across languages, for example, for questions to have rising intonation.

But not all languages have phonemic tone. Phonemic tone occurs within the syllables of single words. Like consonants and vowels, phonemic tones distinguish different words.

Here, different consonants indicate different words: dan, dam, pan, fan, fad.

Here, different vowel sounds indicate different words: dumb, dim, dime, dome, doom.

English doesn't have phonemic tones, but in languages that do, such as Mandarin, words are differentiated by tones as well as by consonants and vowels. The number of tones varies across tone languages. Mandarin has five phonemic tones: high, low, rising, falling, dipping, and neutral/unstressed.

For example, the Mandarin CV sequence "ma" denotes ...

"mother" with high tone, "hemp" with rising tone, "horse" with dipping tone, "scold" with falling tone, [the sentence-final question particle] with neutral/unstressed tone

Most Indo-European languages don't have phonemic tones, but many Southeast Asian languages and West African languages do.


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