Chapter 3: Phonetics

3.12 Tone and intonation


During voicing, the rate of vocal fold vibration can be manipulated. This property is normally called the fundamental frequency (typically abbreviated F0) when talking specifically about the actual physical vibration rate and pitch when talking about the auditory perception of that vibration. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use pitch, since we are usually more concerned with the more abstract, cognitive categorization rather than the actual physical implementation, which can vary quite a bit from speaker to speaker.

Pitch is often intertwined with duration and intensity in stress systems, but it can also be manipulated separately as part of its own system. Roughly speaking, if pitch is manipulated at the level of the word or syllable to make completely different meanings, it is called tone, whereas if it is manipulated above the level of the word (phrases and sentences) to make different kinds of sentences (statements versus questions, for example), it is called intonation. There are some problematic cases that are not easily classified this way, but this is a useful basic distinction.

Tone notation

Many languages distinguish just two tones, normally identified as a high tone (H) and a low tone (L). The IPA has two different systems for notating tone: tone diacritics placed on the relevant phone and separate tone letters placed after the entire syllable.

For languages with simple tone systems, the tone diacritics are normally used, with the acute [ˊ] representing a high tone and the grave [ˋ] representing a low tone. Tone letters iconically represent the height of the tone with a horizontal line connected to a vertical base, with [˥] representing a high tone and [˩] representing a low tone.

In addition, non-IPA superscript numbers on a 1–5 scale are sometimes used instead, with the highest number [⁵] representing a high tone and the lowest number [¹] representing a low tone.

All three of these notation systems are shown in Table 3.2 for the words [lúk] ‘vomit’ and [lùk] ‘weave’ from Bemba, a southern Bantoid language of the Niger-Congo family, spoken in Zambia and nearby areas (Hamann and Kula 2015).

Table 3.2. Tone patterns in one-syllable Bemba words.
tone example with IPA tone diacritics example with IPA tone letters example with non-IPA tone numbers gloss
H [lúk] [luk˥] [luk⁵] ‘vomit’
L [lùk] [luk˩] [luk¹] ‘weave’

The choice of notation depends on a combination of factors, including legibility, the complexity of the language’s tone system, the intended purpose of the transcription, and historical tradition. Recall from Section 3.11 that [ˊ] and [ˋ] are also sometimes used to represent primary and secondary stress, so it is important to be clear exactly what is intended when using these diacritics.

The tone numbers can also be problematic, since there are many traditional tone numbering systems that differ from the system presented here. For example, the high tone in Mandarin is traditionally called “tone 1”, and this numbering is used in some romanizations of Chinese, such as the Wade-Giles system, in which 媽/妈 [ma⁵] ‘mother’ is written ma¹ or ma1.

Diacritics can also be problematic for similar reasons, since [má] ‘mother’ is written mā in pinyin, with a different diacritic.

Tone letters are often more reliably unambiguous in meaning, since they are not normally used with any other meaning, but they have their own issues, such as lack of widespread font support.

Tone as a phonemic property

In many tone languages, each syllable can in principle have its own independent tone, as in the various tone patterns seen in the Bemba words in Table 3.3.

Table 3.3. Tone patterns in longer Bemba words.
tone pattern example with IPA tone diacritics example with IPA tone letters example with non-IPA tone numbers gloss
LH [kùːlá] [kuː˩la˥] [kuː¹la⁵] ‘build’
HH [βúːlá] [βuː˥la˥] [βuː⁵la⁵] ‘take’
HL [péːlà] [peː˥la˩] [peː⁵la¹] ‘give’
LHL [ùkúwà] [u˩ku˥wa˩] [u1ku⁵wa¹] ‘fall’
LLH [ìnùmá] [i˩nu˩ma˥] [i¹nu¹ma⁵] ‘back’
HLH [íŋòmá] [i˥ŋo˩ma˥] [i⁵ŋo¹ma⁵] ‘drum’
HHL [íːnt͡ʃítò] [iː˥nt͡ ʃi˥to˩] [iː⁵nt͡ʃi⁵to¹] ‘work’

Here, we see that the first syllable of a word could have either a high tone, as in [βúːlá] ‘take’, or a low tone, as in [ùkúwà] ‘fall’. Then, regardless of what tone the first syllable has, the second syllable could also have a high tone, as in [βúːlá] ‘take’ and [ùkúwà] ‘fall’, or a low tone, as in [péːlà] ‘give’ and [ìnùmá] ‘back’, and so on. While not all language with tone behave this way, in general, they often allow for a wide range of possible tone combinations.

More tones

One of the ways that tones are more complex than some other phonetic properties is that they are often not simply binary high versus low. Many languages have an intermediate mid tone (M) between high and low, such as Igala, a Yoruboid language of the Niger-Congo family, spoken in Nigeria, which has minimal triplets like those in Table 3.4, which all have a low tone on the first syllable but then one of three different tones on the second (Welmers 1973). Mid tones are represented with the IPA diacritic macron [ˉ], the IPA tone letter [˧], or an intermediate superscript number (usually [³]).

Table 3.4. Tone patterns in Igala.
tone pattern example with IPA tone diacritics example with IPA tone letters example with non-IPA tone numbers gloss
LH [àwó] [a˩wo˥] [a¹wo⁵] ‘slap’
LM [àwō] [a˩wo˧] [a¹wo³] ‘comb’
LL [àwò] [a˩wo˩] [a¹wo¹] ‘star’

Other intermediate tones are also possible, especially when describing more fine-grained details in how a given language’s tone system works.

Contour tones

So far, we have only looked at level tones (high, mid, low), which are relatively stable from beginning to end. However, many languages also have contour tones, which change in pitch during the course of the syllable. For example, Awa (a Kainantu-Goroka language of the Trans-New Guinea family, spoken in Papua New Guinea) has two level tones (H and L) and two contour tones, a falling tone (F) that starts high and ends low, and a rising tone (R) that starts low and ends high (Loving 1966), as shown in the data in Table 3.5.

Falling tones are represented with the IPA diacritic caret [ˆ], a sequence of a high IPA tone letter followed by a low tone letter (usually [˥˩]), or a sequence of superscript numbers that starts high and goes low (usually [⁵¹]). Similarly, rising tones are represented with the IPA diacritic haček [ˇ], a sequence of a low IPA tone letter followed by a high tone letter (usually [˩˥]), or a sequence of superscript numbers that starts low and goes high (usually [¹⁵]). More complicated tones are possible, including using more intermediate tones and more than two component tones in a contour, but they are beyond the scope of this textbook.

Table 3.5. Tone patterns in Awa.
tone pattern example with IPA tone diacritics example with IPA tone letters example with non-IPA tone numbers gloss
H [ná] [na˥] [na⁵] ‘breast’
L [nà] [na˩] [na¹] ‘house’
F [nâ] [na˥˩] [na⁵¹] ‘taro’
R [pǎ] [pa˩˥] [pa¹⁵] ‘fish’

Tone letters for contour tones are sometimes displayed as a single combined character rather than a sequence of separate tone letters, as shown in Figure 3.39. However, this requires a font with the combined characters properly encoded, and this is not always available.

Figure 3.39. Contour tones as sequences of separate tone letters and as combined characters.


​​Finally, we can also see changes in pitch over entire sentences as intonation, with the purpose of conveying syntactic or pragmatic information rather than morphological information. For example, the English sentence this is vegetarian chili has a different intonation depending on whether it is a declarative statement or a question, and whether there is emphasis on a particular word, as in the following examples.

  1. (What are you eating?) This is vegetarian chili.
  2. THIS is vegetarian chili (and THAT is shrimp étouffée).
  3. This is VEGETARIAN chili (not BEEF chili).
  4. This is vegetarian CHILI (not vegetarian STEW).
  5. This is vegetarian chili? (I didn’t hear exactly what you said.)
  6. THIS is vegetarian chili? (It tastes like shrimp étouffée!)
  7. This is VEGETARIAN chili? (I’m sure I tasted meat in it!)
  8. This is vegetarian CHILI? (It seems more like a stew.)

Intonation is very complex, as it depends on the syntactic structure of the utterance, as well as its role in the larger discourse. It can also interact with word-level stress or tone in complex, interesting ways. Intonation lies at the intersection of many different aspects of language, and a proper analysis requires a solid understanding of phonetics, phonology, syntax, and semantics.

Check your understanding

Coming soon!


Hamann, Silke and Nancy C. Kula. 2015. Bemba. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 45(1): 61–68.

Loving, Rochard E. 1966. Awa phonemes, tonemes, and tonally differentiated allomorphs. Papers in New Guinea Linguistics A-7: 23–32.

Welmers, William E. 1973. African language structures. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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