Video Fix: The Linguistics of Tonal Languages


Ready for a little challenge? If you are preparing to learn a new language or if you are interested in linguistics and phonetics, you will surely enjoy today’s post. This week we are bringing you a very interesting Video Fix on the linguistics of tonal languages. Do you know if you speak a tonal or non-tonal language? Read more and find out!

VIDEO FIX tonal languages 31 May 2017

The study of languages allows us to delve into their characteristics and evolution, into their complexity and true nature, which allows us -as language learners or academics- to engage in a mesmerising adventure that is always full of surprises, shocks and challenges. In the Video Fix that we have chosen today, which is a video uploaded by NativLang, we are presented with a brief description of tonal languages, as opposed to non-tonal languages. But what is the relationship between tone and language?


Usually, we use two types of sounds to create words:

  • Vowels
  • Consonants

However, in tonal languages there is a third set of sounds that act as musical notes and create a third category:

  • Tones

Tones allow us to pay attention to higher and lower notes by focusing on the changes in pitch, similar to what a musician or singer would do when reading or performing music. Tonality is a very difficult feature to grasp when learning a new language with a non-tonal linguistic background. However, it is extremely important to get tonality right, since using the incorrect tone is like using an incorrect consonant. In the video, you will learn about the difference between register tones and contour tones. This difference is important when working with Banthu languages of Africa, together with Athabaskan languages of North America, such as Navajo, which work on two basic register tones (a high tone and a low tone) as opposed to Mandarin, Vietnamese or Thai, which use dynamic and complex changes in tone (contour tones) to form words. To make it even more complicated, languages such as Cantonese combine the use of register and contour tones, making it very rich in terms musicality.

We invite you to open your ears, clear your throat and pay attention to this nice explanation. If you are still curious about tonal languages, you can also read one of our previous posts relating to this topic: A musical language.

Written by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).


  • Júlia de Sousa (2013) “A musical language”, EP Terminology Coordination Unit Blog. Available at: (Accessed 31 May 2017)

  • McWhorter, John (2015) “The World’s Most Musical Languages”, The Atlantic. Available at: (Accessed 31 May 2017)

  • NativLang (2015) Sing like you mean it! – the Linguistics of Tonal Language. Available at: (Accessed 31 May 2017)