What Are Tones?

Mitla Ruina

Some languages have melodies that belong to individual words as well as melodies that belong to entire sentences. Melodies that belong to individual words are called tones and languages that have tones are called tone languages.

There are many tone languages in the world; many are spoken in Mexico.

Tones are sometimes spelled using accents over vowels or by numerals at the end of words. So, for example, in the variety of Chinantec spoken in Palantla, Oaxaca, there are three tones. A small, raised 1 represents a low tone (which sounds more like a low falling tone), 2 a mid tone, and 3 a high tone. Click on each word to hear it. The graphs allow you to “see” the pitches. 

Ta1 ta1
‘She will weave it.’  
Ta1
 

Ta2 ta2
‘We are weaving it.’

Ta2
Ta3 ta3
‘Weave it!’
Ta3

In addition, Chinantec has words with tones that rise from one level to another. For example 13 indicates a tone that rises from low to high. Technically, 12 indicates a tone that rises from low to mid, but it actually sounds more like a low level tone.

Ta12 ta12
‘I am weaving it.’
Ta12
Ta13 ta13
‘I will weave it.’
Ta13