In a tone language (tonal language), different tones (like in music, but not as many) will change the meaning of the words, even if the pronunciation of the word is the same otherwise. English and almost all other European languages are not tone languages at all.
In some languages, pitch accent is important. That means a word's meaning could be different depending on which syllable is stressed. Examples include Swedish, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, and Lithuanian. Japanese has a similar system.
An example of tone language: In Mandarin, the sentence ma ma ma ma (麻媽罵馬) includes four different words. If we add numbers to identify the tones, it can be written ma2 ma1 ma4 ma3, which means "the hemp's mother scolds the horse." Some Romanizations write each tone with a different spelling; ma2 ma1 ma4 ma3 would be written ma mha mah maa in Gwoyeu Romatzyh Romanization. Most use numbers or accent marks (mā má mǎ mà in Pinyin).
Mandarin does not have many syllables. For instance, the words for "mother," "hemp," "horse," "scold," and a word put at the end of sentences to make them into questions are all pronounced "ma." For "mother," you say "ma" high and level. For "hemp," you say "ma" starting low and ending high. For "horse," you say "ma" starting fairly high, dipping very low, and then going back up again. For "scold," you say "ma" starting high and ending low. To make a question out of a statement, you add "ma" but keep it very soft and short, and about on the same level. Mandarin has "first tone," "second tone," "third tone," "fourth tone," and "neutral tone." Other Chinese languages have more tones, some as many as twelve.
Some tones may sound alike to people who do not speak a tone language, and can be easy to forget. They are the most difficult part of learning a tone language for many people.
Tonal markings[change | change source]
Vietnamese and Pinyin use accents (diacritics) as the tone marks for the Latin script. Each marking defines an altered sound for the syllable. Most syllables only have one tone marking. But the letters in the syllable can be altered by other special character/letter markings. Syllables usually form one word in un-hyphenated compound words. Pinyin may have style differences that break from convention (in use) because it is a demonstration language. Vietnamese has a national script that always follows the syllable marking style.