Lately I've been wondering a lot whether or not there's an upper limit on how many contrasting tones a language can have that differ primarily by pitch difference and not so much by the shape or contour of the tones.

People unfamiliar with tonal languages usually assume the tones are like different musical notes. But usually there are more tones with "shapes" than just pitch differences.

Taking Standard Mandarin Chinese as an example:

  1. First tone is just a high note with a flat contour. Pitch is steady.
  2. Second tone has a rising contour. Pitch starts lower and becomes higher.
  3. Third tone has a contour which falls, then rises. Pitch starts higher, goes lower, then higher again.
  4. Fourth tone has a falling contour. Pitch starts higher then goes lower.

But other tonal languages can and do have more than one tone with a flat contour / steady pitch. Basically just "different notes".

Also other languages can have for example two contrasting falling tones with one starting high and falling to the mid range, and another starting in the mid range and falling to a low pitch.

My question is, what are the most distinguished tones in a single language which have a similar shape but different pitch?

  • 1
    By the way, somebody might bring up "what about where there are two falling tones with different 'steepness' with one falling from 5 to 1 and one falling from 3 to 2." Or anything like that. I would regard this as an interesting grey area that I'd also like to know about but isn't the topic of this question. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 14:34
  • 1
    Indeed. I recorded a speaker of Henanhua who distinguished two rising tones and two falling tones in a declarative, isolation context. The two rising tones started at different levels but rose to a similar endpoint, and the two falling tones tended to start at around the same pitch but one started falling earlier than the other one (i.e. the alignment of the fall relative to the syllable was earlier for one than for the other). Tone "shape" can mean a lot of things! Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 16:06

3 Answers 3


Moira Yip discusses this issue in Chapter 2 of her book Tone.

The short answer: four, possibly five.

HOWEVER, this question is not as straightforward to answer as one might think; tones can be defined in terms of phonological contrast--like phonemes--or phonetic contrasts--like phones. Just like segmental phonemes, tones are often analyzed as surfacing with contours that deviate from their true "underlying forms". For example, since the pitch contour of a syllable is directly affected by intonation as well as lexical tone, what might otherwise be a level tone might surface as falling in a declarative context and rising in an interrogative context. What's more, tones are often analyzed as undergoing phonological processes--known as tone sandhi--that are dependent on the identities of neighboring or nearby tones.

Let's take Mandarin as a familiar example. You stated that the third tone falls then rises. This is true of a carefully articulated syllable spoken in isolation (or sometimes at the end of a phrase), but actually in practice the third tone almost never really surfaces this way. If it is followed by another third-toned syllable, the pitch will basically just rise steadily. In other environments it often simply surfaces with a low, relatively level contour. In fact, some phonologists analyze Mandarin as having two level tones--high and low--and two contour tones--falling and rising. In such analyses the fall-rise surface contour of tone three is just an "allotone" of that "toneme" that occurs in a predictable environment, i.e. phrase-finally.

What about Cantonese? "Checked" syllables aside, Cantonese is usually analyzed by phonologists as having six contrastive tones. Three are usually considered level, two rising, and the last is either analyzed as "low-falling" or just very low level. I've made recordings of native speakers of Hong Kong Cantonese, and in that experimental context I found that that last tone usually surfaces (in a declarative context) with a contour that falls briefly but then plateaus and stays relatively level at the bottom of the speaker's pitch range. So is that a level tone? Who's to say??

Assuming one can decide which tones in an inventory are level, another challenge is deciding how many of them can be counted as contrastive. Imagine being out in the field with a new, unfamiliar language that appears to be tonal. You record a bunch of words, and there appear to be minimal pairs that suggest that whether a syllable is given a relatively high pitch or a relatively low pitch can affect the meaning of the word it's in. One straightforward analysis is to say that there are two contrastive tones in this language, "high" and "low". But another reasonable analysis is that some syllables are lexically marked for tone--we could call it "high"--and others aren't. All else being equal, syllables that are marked as "high" get realized with a higher pitch than those that aren't, which by default surface with a lower pitch. Likewise, a language that is observed as having three surface levels may be analyzed as having a "high" tone, a "mid" tone, and a "low" tone, but it may also be analyzed as having a "high" tone and a "low" tone, with unmarked syllables surfacing with a mid-range pitch. So, in theory, Yip notes, a system with n phonological tones can produce (n + 1) surface tones.

To summarize what Yip says about the typological facts:

"Underlying" three-tone systems are common: Huajuapan Mixtec, Nupe, Kunama, Punjabi. Most systems that are given "underlying" four-tone analyses--Grebo, Igede, Mambila, Mazateco, Chatino, Jianyang, Cantonese (?)--only display four surface tones. In theory, of course, the logical alternative is to assume "high", "mid", "low", and zero for these languages. Finally, there are languages that contrast five level tones on the surface, but "most are known only from fairly brief reports, with not enough detail to determine unequivocally whether there are actually five underlying level tones, or whether one or more are derived in some way." (Yip 27) These include Hei-Miao, Gaoba Dong, Dan, Trique, and Ngamambo Bamileke.

If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend obtaining a copy of Yip's book!

  • I know about tone sandhi and have asked questions about it here before. I didn't bring it up here because it would make the question more complicated. But maybe the nature of tones is that that's unavoidable? Then again in my previous questions we seemed to decide that Vietnamese is at least one tonal language without tone sandhi, and my question seeking tone sandhi details for Lao still has no answers and no comments. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 6:24
  • @hippietrail Yes, I think in the end it--along with intonational effects--is unavoidable. I don't know much about Vietnamese, but I would bet money that its tones are not immune to unpredictable (i.e. non-generalizable) intonational effects. In Cantonese, T1, T3, and T5 are relatively level in phrase-final declarative contexts. In phrase-final echo-question contexts, T3 and T5 start level and then scoop up, but T1 just shoots straight up. Can one say that all three tones have a similar shape? Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 15:58
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    You've probably seen it, but in case you missed it: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/4242/… Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 16:08

This is a very wide-ranging question. Perhaps I could answer it with reference to one language with which I have occupied myself fairly extensively, namely Vietnamese.

Standard Vietnamese (Hanoi dialect) has six contrasting tones corresponding to the six tones of the orthography. At a narrow phonetic level they can be described as a complex bundle containing the following elements:

  • pitch:
    high, middle, low (high and low pitch with a slight inflection upwards or downwards respectively)
  • contour:
    flat, dipping (the pitch dips sharply, and may or may not rise again to a higher level)
  • length:
    normal, short
  • phonation:
    unmarked, breathy, glottal, creaky

The six tones are:

  • ngang :
    middle pitch, flat contour, normal length, unmarked phonation
  • huyền :
    low pitch, flat contour, normal length, breathy phonation
  • sắc :
    high pitch, flat contour, short length, unmarked phonation
  • nặng :
    low pitch, flat contour, short length, glottal phonation
  • hỏi :
    middle pitch, dipping contour, normal length, unmarked phonation
  • ngã :
    middle pitch, dipping contour, normal length, creaky phonation

At a more theoretical (phonological) level I would propose a much simpler analysis, involving only:

  • two registers:
    first (unmarked phonation), second (marked phonation)
  • three contours:
    flat, short, dipping

Giving this analysis:

  • ngang :
    first register, flat contour
  • huyền :
    second register, flat contour
  • sắc :
    first register, short contour
  • nặng :
    second register, short contour
  • hỏi :
    first register, dipping contour
  • ngã :
    second register, dipping contour

This analysis distinguishes only register (phonation) and contour (encompassing length). Pitch is treated as a predictable phonetic feature. It results in a system of at most six tones.

  • So by any normal measure no more than two contrasting tones with similar contour shapes? Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 14:40
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    If you accept my minimalist phonological analysis. If you follow the phonetic analysis there are four tones for the flat contour.
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 14:44
  • Ah yes where "flat contour" and "short contour" are both flat contours. Sorry I missed that. By the way I hope you approve of my formatting edit just now. Hopefully it's a bit nicer to read this way. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 14:46
  • 1
    Yes, much better.
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 14:48

The largest number of levels (actual level tones, not contours) is 6, in the language Chori, documented in his 1976 U. Wisconsin dissertation Aspects Of The Tonal Structure Of Chori. He proposes rules for deriving 3 of these tone levels from underlying tone sequences, but those rules are not surface allophonic rules (the conditioning tones are often not actually present), so the "other" 3 levels can't be dismissed as just the result of phonetic implementation. However, there are only 3 underlying tone levels associated with lexical items.

  • Who is the author?
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 12:40
  • Ooops -- Ivan Dihoff
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 16:57

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