Chapter 120: Tone

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 120.

1. Introduction

Tone refers to pitch contrasts that distinguish different words, either different lexeme stems or different grammatical forms, such as singular vs. plural, or different tenses of the verb.

In the great majority of the APiCS languages (52 languages), the contributors report that no tonal distinctions exist, but future research may well show that some of these languages do have tone.

This feature parallels WALS feature 13 (Maddieson 2005a).

2. The values

We distinguish the following values:

No tone distinctions52
Reduced tone system9
Simple system, for lexical distinctions only3
Simple tone system, for lexical and grammatical distinctions9
Complex tone system, for lexical and grammatical distinctions1

Value 2 (a reduced tone system) is a system where only some of the logically possible tone patterns are realized. Several possibilities occur. Papiamentu (Kouwenberg 2013b) distinguishes high and low tones, but in disyllabic words, only high-low and low-high tone patterns occur:


Papiamentu (Kouwenberg 2013b)

káskà 'peel' (noun) vs. kàská'peel' (noun) vs.

High-high and low-low tonal patterns are excluded. Since Papiamentu’s two-tone patterns mainly distinguish nouns from verbs (nouns having in most cases HL and verbs in most cases LH), tone is used almost exclusively for grammatical distinctions (syntactic categories). Exceptions are, for example, mùchá ‘child’ and tàmbé ‘also’, which both are LH in spite of not being verbs, or fángú ‘to catch’, which is HL in spite of not being a noun. Note that in Papiamentu, stress also plays a major role, as can be seen in example (2) where the first two items are stressed on the first syllable, and the last item on the last syllable.


Papiamentu (Kouwenberg 2013b)

mátà 'plant' (noun) vs. màtá 'plant' (verb) vs. má’tà 'killed' (participle)

Another case of a reduced tone system is Ghanaian Pidgin English, where high tone and low tone are used to distinguish two grammatical categories or to distinguish lexical from grammatical categories.

If you go and see my house, even you will be sorry.

In this example, the main verb go carries a high tone, whereas the future marker is low-toned. Other examples are ‘locative copula’ vs. ‘progressive marker’, ‘bee’ vs. ‘existential copula, or ‘way’ vs. ‘completive aspect’.

Creolese has, for example, flówà ‘flour’ vs. flòwá ‘flower’ or ánsà ‘answer (verb)’ vs. ànsá ‘answer (noun)’, and Nengee has bùkú ‘mold’ vs. búkù ‘book’ or ‘copula’ vs. ‘negator’.

Yet another case is represented by Fanakalo, where tonal distinctions occur only in the word lo. With a high tone, it means ‘that’ or functions as a relativizer, and with a low tone it means ‘this’; with no tone it fulfils the function of a definite article.

Simple tone systems (values 3 and 4) exhibit a two-way contrast (e.g. high-low or high-neutral), and exploit all or almost all logically possible tone patterns.

Value 3 (a simple tone system for lexical distinctions only) can be found in Kikongo-Kituba:


Kikongo-Kituba (Mufwene 2013)

màlémbè 'slow', mùnòkò 'mouth', dìlálá 'orange', pòló-pòló 'indescrete', pètè-pètè 'soft'

Value 4 (a simple tone system for lexical and grammatical distinctions) occurs in 9 languages.

Principense distinguishes high and low (or neutral) tones; in disyllabic nouns, the four logically possible tone patterns (HH, HL, LH, LL) occur. The following examples illustrate lexical minimal pairs:


Principense(Maurer 2013c)

máká 'litter' vs. mákà 'mark' vs. ótó 'other' vs. òtò 'neck' vs. bóbó 'stupid' vs. bòbó 'mulatto' vs. átxì 'profession' vs. àtx 'you (sg)'

In addition to this, Principense also uses tone for grammatical distinctions, in the sense that tone distinguishes between syntactic categories (nouns vs. verbs):


Principense(Maurer 2013c)

fálá 'speech, talk' vs. fàlà 'to speak, to talk' myánsá 'threat' vs. myànsà 'to threaten'

Similar distinctions can be found in two other Gulf of Guinea creoles, namely in Santome and Angolar.

In Krio, there is a difference between fádá ‘God’, fádà ‘father’, and fàdá ‘Catholic priest’; in the grammatical domain we find ‘to go’ vs. ‘future marker’, as in Ghanaian Pidgin (see example 3).

In Pichi, four different tone patterns occur in disyllabic nouns:


Pichi (Yakpo 2013)

fíbá 'fever', wɔtá 'water', nyɔní 'ant', bátá 'buttocks'

Furthermore, tone may be used for grammatical distinctions, as in ‘locative copula’ vs. ‘progressive marker’.

In Saramaccan, we find jàà ‘scatter’, jáà ‘year’, jàá ‘you have’, and jáá ‘you haven’t’.

In Lingala, there are four tonal patterns with disyllabic nouns, with the following minimal pairs:


Lingala (Meeuwis 2013)

ngàmbò 'difficulty' vs. ngámbò 'opposite side of the river or a street', mòtò 'person' vs. mòtó 'head', sàngò 'news' vs. sángó 'priest'

that I eat vs. I have eaten

Value 5 (a complex tone system) is a system that shows more than two tone contrasts; this is found in only one language: Sango. This language displays a three tone system (high, middle, low). Lexical minimal pairs are


Sango (Samarin 2013)

kwá 'death, corpse' vs. kwā 'hair, feather' vs. kwà 'work' vs. mènè 'to swallow' vs. méné 'blood'

In the domain of grammatical distinctions, there is only one case, namely lo ‘he, she, it’. If has a low tone, the verb gets something like an indicative reading; if has a high tone, the verb gets a subjunctive interpretation. However, this distinction is restricted to a small number of speakers.

3. Areal distribution

All languages having a reduced or a simple tone system belong to the Atlantic area and to continental Africa; in Asia, no APiCS language is reported to have a tone system.

Some tonal languages are Iberian-based (Angolar, Fa d’Ambô, Principense, and Santome in the Gulf of Guinea, and Papiamentu in the Caribbean); some are English-based (Cameroon Pidgin English, Ghanaian Pidgin English, Krio, Nigerian Pidgin English, and Pichi in West Africa, as well as Creolese, Nengee, San Andres Creole English, and Saramaccan in the Caribbean); but no tonal distinctions are reported for French-, Dutch-, Arabic-, or Malay-based languages. However, all African-based APiCS languages exhibit tonal features: Fanakalo, Kikongo-Kituba, Lingala, and Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu.

4. Comparison with WALS

According to Yip (2002: 1), up to 60-70% of the world’s languages are tonal, but in the WALS sample (Maddieson 2005a) only 42% of the languages display tone distinctions.

The vast majority of the APiCS languages show no tone distinctions (70%), which is probably due to the fact that many languages, especially the European languages, that were involved in creolization and similar phenomena are not tonal, or had more influence than the tonal languages involved in the contact situation. However, the Portuguese-based creoles of the Gulf of Guinea, for instance, show that creole languages may have a simple tone system in spite of the fact that their European lexifier (in this case Portuguese) is not tonal.

Only 22 APiCS languages (30%) possess some kind of tonal distinctions. The most common types are reduced tone systems (9 languages), and simple tone systems for lexical and grammatical distinctions (also 9 languages). Note that in most cases, grammatical distinctions are limited to differentiation in syntactic categories, mainly V vs. N, or to differentiation of grammatical markers, such as copula vs. progressive marker, or differentiation of lexemes and grammatical markers like ‘to go’ vs. future marker. Simple tone systems for lexical distinctions only occur in Fa d’Ambô, Kikongo-Kituba, and Trinidad English Creole.