There is a theory about tonogenesis for the Chinese language, thus Chinese had once a more complex syllable-structure and no tones. In the course of time, the syllable structure became less complex and tones emerged to compensate this loss.

I am not sure about the other way, the loss of tones. For instance, I read a short notion about old Greek being a language that features pitch accent, if am right pitch accent is the alteration of the frequency, is this similar to tone?

  • The term pitch accent does not have a universally agreed-upon definition, but in many cases it is used to refer to a subset of lexical tonal systems that mark tonal contrasts at the level of the word as opposed to the syllable. Larry Hyman makes a good case against classifying tonal systems in this way in this paper. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 14:40
  • Related question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/2532/… Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 14:41

4 Answers 4


It is generally assumed that proto-Indo-European had a pitch accent, which survives in the notation of Classical Greek and of Vedic, but which has disappeared in Modern Greek as well as in Classical Sanskrit and the Middle and New Indo-Aryan languages. The IE pitch accent survives at least partially in Lithuanian.

  • Would the tone systems in Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian also be related, or are those innovations? Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 1:16
  • 4
    My understanding is that the tones in Serbo-Croat and Slovenian are a secondary development. But there are people on here who know more about Slavic than I.
    – fdb
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 20:53
  • 1
    Serbo-Croatian tone is a secondary development made by retracting the old accent by one syllable
    – Darkgamma
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 9:21

Korean was a tonal langauge until the 16th Century. In fact, even today the Gyeongsang dialect still uses tones.

From my ancedotal experience, remanents of tone are still visible in the "standard" Seoul dialect as well (mostly related to length of articulation), but they aren't ubiquitous among speakers and are not taught to Korean Second Langauge learners.


Proto-Bantu and Proto-Niger-Congo were tonal, and a number of daughter languages have become non-tonal (examples: Kutu, Pogolo, Mbunga, Zaramo, Swahili, in East Africa; most North Atlantic languages; the Gur language Koromfe; the Mande language Bis(s)a).


Older stages of Japanese held much richer inventories of tonal contrast than the modern "standard" Tokyo dialect, which is rather restricted in its lexical tonal contrasts. And some other modern dialects have lost lexical tonal contrasts altogether.

This Wikipedia article on Japanese pitch accent provides a map that shows areas where such non-tonal dialects are spoken.

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