I've put "isolates" in scare quotes because this is probably not a standard meaning for the term "language isolate". But anyway I'm sure it's still abvious what I'm looking for.

I was wondering about languages losing or merging tones until there are none left. Since that would take a long time we might not have evidence of such occuring.

But what we might possibly have are instances of non-tonal languages within language families which otherwise consist mostly of tonal languages.

If this doesn't exist I'm also interested in cases of a language with far fewer tones than most of its sibling and cousin languages.

  • Why was Lazarus Loafer's answer deleted? I was rather hoping he would expand it with some edits. – hippietrail Nov 24 '13 at 3:03

The Khmer language isn't tonal, but it's surrounded by tonal languages although not all of them belong to one family (but they form a sprachbund).

In a more general context, there are many languages that have lost phonemic vowel length, which might be related to the loss of tones as an internal process.

  • My own variety of English has gained phonemic vowel length! I have a short [æ] in "had" and a long [æ:] in "bad"! I believe I also have vowel length distinctions in [e] and short [ʊ] (the last just before "l"). – hippietrail Nov 23 '13 at 14:47
  • I just had a look and it seems Mon-Khmer is a non-tonal family but it includes a "tonal isolate": Vietnamese. So it is kind of an opposite of what I was asking for (-: Also while the languages don't have tone, they do have an alternate extra dimension: "modal voice" vs "breathy voice" vs "creaky voice". – hippietrail Nov 23 '13 at 14:55
  • The comment about a possible relationship between losing vowel length and losing tones is suggestive, but I don’t think it works that way. Mandarin (no phonemic vowel length) has fewer tones than Cantonese (which has long and short vowels). However, if you look at how Mandarin tones developed from Middle Chinese (see the wiki page on MC), it’s clear that there is really no relationship. The idea that Mandarin is somehow on the way to losing its tones is just not credible (not that you made that claim). – neubau Nov 26 '13 at 4:28

For the parts of Asia where many tonal languages are spoken (China and mainland Southeast Asia), it’s very hard to find examples of languages just losing tone. Thomason and Kaufman, in their book ‘Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics’, mention a language called Wutun, which belongs to the Chinese language family, but has borrowed many grammatical features and much vocabulary from Tibetan, and has also lost phonemic tone. “According to the Wutun speakers’ own oral history, they are descendants of Chinese immigrants to the region who were forced to assimilate to the surrounding Tibetan culture. Few now speak another Chinese language, but many/most speak Tibetan as their second language.” So in this kind of special contact situation, it’s possible for tones to disappear and a “tonal isolate” to arise. Otherwise it doesn’t seem to happen.

I only know about Asia though, not about other world regions where many languages have tone. It’s quite possible that you could come up with some “tonal isolates” elsewhere. Swahili?

There’s a lot to say about Mon-Khmer languages. There are small MK languages all around mainland SEA, and the diversity within the family is much greater than for Tai. The linguist ML Shorto produced a dictionary of proto-Mon-Khmer, and it’s possible that he reconstructed a breathy/modal phonation distinction for the protolanguage. While Khmer doesn’t have either contour tones or phonation distinctions, it does have what’s called ‘register’, basically a vowel split. Khmer consonants belong to one of two series, which determine how the vowels are pronounced. Khmu (spoken mainly in northern Laos) is another MK language that has undergone tonogenesis, but only in some dialects (I think the wiki page on Khmu explains this in detail.) I was taught a few words in Khmu while trekking around Luang Namtha – I think what I heard there was breathy phonation rather than tone.

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