An In-Depth Guide to Creating a Phonology – Part 4: Tones and Pitch Accent

Tones and Word Accents in IPA by the International Phonetic Association

In the previous part, I explained the various different types of suprasegmentals that you could include in your conlang. However, I intentionally left out pitch accent and tone because I wanted to talk about them more in-depth.

A lot of people see tone as a difficult concept to grasp, but most languages including English use changes in pitch to apply pragmatic meaning to sentences. This is called intonation. Tone and pitch accent is similar to intonation, but they have an effect on the meaning of words.

A common misconception about tonal languages is that you have to ‘sing’ it. This is not quite true since singing involves absolute levels of pitch, while languages with tone or pitch accent involve relative pitch. So you don’t need to hit any notes, you just need to change the pitch relative to normal level that you speak at.

Pitch Accent

Pitch accent is similar to stress, as it gives emphasis to a particular syllable, or sometimes a particular mora, in a word. Unlike stress, pitch accent only uses change in pitch to achieve this. Pitch accent is contoured across a whole word, unlike true tone where each syllable has a unique tone. It is also possible for pitch accent languages to have accentless words; or in other words, no change in pitch.

Usually, the marked syllable or mora is higher-pitched; but it is possible (but rare) for it to be low-pitched. Ruwund is a Bantu language that can be analysed as the high tone being the default tone while the low tone is more significant.

The syllables or morae before a high pitch accent can also become high pitched in anticipation of the accent. In standard Japanese for example, each mora has a high pitch before the accent and has a low pitch after. However if the second mora is high pitched, then the first mora will be low pitched.

It is also possible for different patterns to be used for pitch accent. In Swedish, words can be assigned one of two pitch accent patterns. These patterns are realised over multiple syllables, so the two are only distinguished in polysyllabic words. This great video from Academia Cervena explains and demonstrates how Swedish pitch accent works.

Pitch accent is a good option to consider if you want to include tone in your conlang, but you’re aiming for simplicity. It is also a good option if you want something more interesting than stress accent. Pitch accent functions in a similar way to stress accent by accenting a particular part of the word, but there is more variation in how the accent is realised.


Now, let’s talk about fully-fledged tone. There are two main types of tonal language: register tone and contour tone. In register tone languages, tones are distinguished by their relative pitch level; while in contour tone languages, tones are distinguished by how the pitch level changes throughout the syllable.

Mandarin Chinese is probably the most well-known contour tone language. Tone is one of the reasons why it has a reputation for being so difficult. However, Mandarin’s tone system is actually relatively simple for a contour tone language. It has four main tones: a high tone, a rising tone, a falling-rising tone and a falling tone. There is also a fifth neutral tone which tends to be shorter and its actual pitch depends on the preceding tone.

Tone Terracing

Remember that tonal languages use levels of pitch relative to a midpoint. The pitch level of that midpoint may change, therefore changing the pitch of each tone. This means that tonal languages can have intonation.

In some register-tone languages, low-tones may cause following syllables to have a lower midpoint; so high-tones and mid-tones will be slightly lower than usual. This is called downstep. Likewise, upstep is when the midpoint of the following syllables are raised in pitch.

Also, the syllable that triggers a change in tone in other syllables may be lost, but the changes that it triggers remain. This is called floating tone.

Tone Sandhi

Tone Sandhi is a common phenomenon where a tone may change depending on adjacent syllables.

Mandarin Chinese has some interesting tone sandhi rules. For instance: A falling-rising tone will become a rising tone when immediately before another falling-rising tone. There some rules that are specific to a particular word: For example, the word for ‘not’, bù, is usually a falling tone; but if it is followed by another falling tone then it will become a rising tone.

In a dialect of Mǐn Chinese, Cháozhōu, there are eight possible tones for monosyllabic words. These are called isolation tones. If a syllable is followed by another syllable, then the isolation tone will change into a corresponding combination tone.

Yoruba’s tone system is interesting, as it’s mainly a register tone language but with elements of a contour tone language. There are three contrastive register tones: high, mid and low. However, in certain combinations, these register tones may be realised as contour tones. For example, a high tone following a low tone becomes a rising tone; while a low tone following a high tone becomes a falling tone. Sometimes a vowel with a high or low tone is lost, but the tone sandhi rules are still applied.

Combing Tone with Other Features

Other features, such as vowel length and phonation, can become intertwined with tone. Just so you’re aware, this phenomenon is confusingly called pitch register. This is completely different to register tones which I described above.

A good example of this phenomenon is Burmese, which has four tones: a high creaky voice tone; a long low tone; a long high breathy voice tone; and a short high tone that ends with a glottal stop.

I have used a similar tone system in one of my own conlangs: Nìmpyèshiu. It has four tones, one of which is a high breathy voice tone and some vowels may lengthen in syllables with rising and falling tones.


You might be wondering how languages obtain tones in the first place. Here’s how tone developed in the Chinese languages.

Syllable final consonants can have an effect on the pitch of the syllable. If final consonants are lost, then two syllables which only differed in their final consonant can now only be distinguished by their pitch. Old Chinese originally had no tone but had final glottal stops and final fricatives. The final glottal stop caused a syllable to have a rising tone, while the final fricative caused a syllable to have a falling tone. These final consonants were then lost, leaving just the tone. Also, syllables that had a final voiceless oral stop became a checked tone and syllables ending in vowels or voiced consonants became a level tone. This resulted in the four tones of Middle Chinese.

Initial consonants would then have an effect on the tone. Voiced consonants have a tendency to cause the syllable to have a lower pitch. How this was realised was different for each dialect. In Beijing Mandarin, for example, an initial voiced consonant caused the level tone to become a rising tone.


The main resource I recommend is ‘The World’s Major Languages’ by Bernard Comrie, which includes descriptions of many tonal and pitch-accent languages.

Also for those interested in Chinese, I recommend ‘China Construction Kit’ by Mark Rosenfelder. It has a lot of useful and clear information on Mandarin and Old Chinese.

In the next part of this series, I will be covering phonotactics.


  1. “Also for those intrusted in Chinese, I recommend ‘China Construction Kit’ by Mark Rosenfelder. It has a lot of useful and clear information on Mandarin and Old Chinese.”

    You mean “The Language Construction Kit”, yeah? And *entrusted. Anyway, otherwise really interesting article – it’s cool to read about the origin of Chinese tone!

    Liked by 1 person

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