Linguistics Tone
Bert Remijsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0175


When the phonological form of a morpheme consistently gives rise to a specific pattern of fundamental frequency (f0), this morpheme is specified for tone. Languages in which such morphemes are found are referred to as tone languages, even if the extent of this specification is limited. The specification of tone may be a characteristic of a content morpheme (lexical tone) or of a function morpheme (grammatical tone). With respect to the phonetic realization, the pattern of f0 may be accompanied by other correlates. Tone languages are found all over the world, and they vary greatly in phonological structure. The least complex systems contrast a specification for tone with its absence in a single syllable of the word. At the other end of the spectrum, we find inventories with more than ten contrasting tone categories. Tone languages also show great diversity in other dimensions. One of these is the degree to which tone categories interact with adjacent tone categories within phonological domains such as the word, the phrase, and the utterance. While some tone languages lack such “tone sandhi” phenomena, they play an important role in others, to the extent that the phonological specification in a given utterance diverges drastically from the intrinsic tonal specification of the constituent morphemes. There is also great variation in the phonetic realization of tone patterns, both in terms of fundamental frequency and in terms of accompanying correlates. Finally, tone may interact with other parts of the sound system and of the wider grammar. Variability in all these areas is found not only between mutually unintelligible systems but also between dialects, indicating that tone systems are prone to change diachronically. Because of this richness in phonological structure, phonetic realization, and relations with other parts of the grammar, tone has been investigated intensively from a variety of theoretical perspectives and by using a wide range of methodological approaches.

General Overviews

Fromkin 1978, an edited volume, offers a comprehensive overview on tone. The range of topics covered in this book is excellent, encompassing both the phonology and the phonetics of tone, and in this respect it stands out among other overview publications. The topics and research questions outlined in this volume have been at the center of research into tone. For this reason, Fromkin 1978 remains a useful starting-point orientation, although knowledge has increased greatly on all the topic areas dealt with in its chapters. Yip 2002 and Gussenhoven 2004 provide more up-to-date overviews, although neither of them have the breadth of scope of Fromkin 1978. Anyone reading both Yip 2002 and Gussenhoven 2004 will find repetition to be fairly limited. The strengths of Gussenhoven 2004 include the coverage of restricted tone systems, phonetic dimensions of tone, and other suprasegmental distinctions that may interact with tone, such as intonation. It goes into detail on experimental approaches and presents functional explanations, such as the hypothesized biological codes. Moira Yip offers detailed discussion on phonological representation, and she presents a discussion of tone systems by geographical region. Both use autosegmental theory to represent tone patterns; phonological processes are represented using both autosegmental theory and optimality theory. The data are drawn from a wide range of languages.

  • Fromkin, Victoria A., ed. 1978. Tone—a linguistic survey. New York: Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume was compiled at a point in time when the study of tone was progressing rapidly with respect to theory, description, and measurement. It presents summaries of the then state of the art in a wide range of specialist areas. Both the phonetics and phonology of tone are covered comprehensively.

  • Gussenhoven, Carlos. 2004. The phonology of tone and intonation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616983E-mail Citation »

    Gussenhoven covers tone in the wider context of the phonetics and phonology of pitch/fundamental frequency, both at the word level (tone) and above it (intonation). The coverage is wide ranging, including topics such as biological explanations, declination, and optimality theory. There are case studies on various restricted tone systems.

  • Yip, Moira. 2002. Tone. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164559E-mail Citation »

    Among others, this monograph covers theoretical frameworks and tone features (but see Tone Height Features for additional hypotheses and more-recent critiques). There are also summaries of tone languages of different regions; the discussion on tone languages of Southeast Asia is particularly detailed.

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