In English we have several terms, "homonym", "homophone", and "homograph".

  1. The first one is disliked by linguists as being too vague though might be best used for words with separate etymologies that nonetheless share both pronunciation and spelling.
  2. The second is for words which share an exact pronunciation though they may differ in spelling.
  3. And the third is for words which share a written form but might be pronounced differently.

But with tonal languages there is another level of granularity:

  • Words which share the same sequence of phonemes but at least one carries a different tone.

Since I'm asking, there's another possibility that I've also taken an interest in:

  • Words which share a tone contour but not phonemes. For instance two three-syllable Chinese terms both having tone 3 + tone 2 + tone 4 in that order.
  • 2
    I guess the logical names would be "homosegment(al)s" and "homotones", but Google tells me that me the latter already has a slang meaning... In your first question: A toneme IS a kind of phoneme, although it isn't segmental. You could ask similar questions about any suprasegmental features, like stress, stød, pitch etc.
    – dainichi
    Feb 21, 2014 at 6:09
  • @dainichi: Yes I struggled a bit for which words to use just to ask this question. But I would've thought "toneme" is in a different dimension to "phoneme". In a language with syllable-based tone each syllable would have both a phoneme and a toneme. Or is it that it has both a toneme and a ???eme, which together make up the phoneme? (Tone languages with word based tones would be trickier again of course!) Feb 21, 2014 at 12:48
  • You're kind of chasing your tail. I think beyond speech, phonemes serve for expressive reasons and analysis, stress that can indicate meaning but being tonal isn't a requirement of phonetics so if you are to measure allotone/allophones the purpose of examining language would usually shift from expressive meaning to emotional exertions or subconscious affect.
    – user18367
    Nov 25, 2015 at 15:28
  • 1
    For the cases in Serbo-Croatian when only pitch distinguishes a word (pȁra, pȃrā, pàra) I do not know of any term and could not find one in the dictionary, but it could very well be that there is a semi-formal one (analogous to "false friends"). Jan 24, 2016 at 20:56

1 Answer 1


I just call them near homophones. Tone is still a phonemic feature, so there's nothing particularly special. Would you also try to distinguish near homophones that differ only in nasalization of a vowel?

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