How to compare tones

Nan Xu Rattanasone, Virginie Attina, Benjawan Kasisopa, Denis Burnham

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    3 Citations (Scopus)


    Introduction: In the field of psycholinguistics, until recently tone languages have received scarce attention compared to Germanic and Romance languages, particularly in the area of language acquisition. This is despite the fact that 60舑70 percent of the world’s languages are tonal, and spoken by some of the world’s largest language groups (Yip, 2002). In Southeast Asia, tone languages are prominent, with the better-known and researched tone languages including Thai, Vietnamese, and all of those within the Chinese family of languages (e.g., Mandarin, Cantonese or Yue, and Shanghai or Min, to name a few). In this chapter we will present a number of methods by which tones can be described and compared, ahead of three examples of research using variations of a relatively recent method, that of tone space mapping. Phonetic descriptions of tone: Tone language research has traditionally focused on documenting the number, type, and acoustic characteristics of tone. With regard to tone type, most Asian tone languages contain both level and contour tones. Level tones have a relatively steady level of pitch height from tone onset to offset. Contour tones on the other hand show changes in pitch height; rising tones increasing in pitch and falling tones decreasing pitch from tone onset to offset. Tone languages vary in complexity: Cantonese has one of the largest tone inventories with six tones (three level and three contour tones), Thai follows with five tones (three level and one of each rising and falling), while Mandarin has four tones (one level with three contour tones). Both the number and type of tones in any particular language present complexities for adult language learners and researchers studying tone.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSouth and Southeast Asian psycholinguistics
    EditorsHeather Winskel, Prakash Padakannaya
    Place of PublicationCambridge
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages14
    ISBN (Electronic)9781139084642
    ISBN (Print)9781107017764
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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