A tone language, or tonal language, is a language in which a words has different tones (like pitches in music) that change the meaning of a word even if the pronunciation of the word is otherwise the same.
Many Asian languages are tone languages, such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Punjabi. Most languages, including Indo-European languages like English are not tone languages, but Punjabi is an exception. Moreover, many African languages like Yorùbá, Igbo, Luganda, Ewe and Zulu use tone as well.
In some languages, it is pitch accent that is important instead. A word's meaning can then change if a different syllable is stressed. Examples include Ancient Greek, Hebrew, Swedish, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, Lithuanian, and some Asian languages like Japanese. However, pitch accent is different from tones.
Some tones may sound alike to people who do not speak a tone language. They are the most difficult part of learning a tone language for those people.
In Mandarin, the sentence ma ma ma ma (麻媽罵馬) has four different words. If numbers identify the tones, they can be written ma2 ma1 ma4 ma3, which means "the hemp's mother scolds the horse." Some ways of romanization mark each tone by a different spelling; ma2 ma1 ma4 ma3 in Pinyin would be written ma mha mah maa in Gwoyeu Romatzyh. Most use numbers or accent marks (mā má mǎ mà in Pinyin). There is a passage called Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (施氏食獅史). It has 92 characters; all read the same way in Mandarin ("shi") but with different tones.
Mandarin does not have many syllables: the words for "mother," "hemp," "horse," "scold," and a word put at the end of sentences to make it a question are all pronounced "ma:"
- "Mother" is "ma" that is high and level.
- "Hemp" is "ma" that starts low and ends high.
- "Horse" is "ma" that starts fairly high, dips very low, and then goes back up again.
- "Scold" is "ma" that starts high and ends low.
- To make a question, "ma" is added at the end, but it is kept very soft and short and about the same level.
Mandarin has "first tone," "second tone," "third tone," "fourth tone," and "neutral tone." Other Chinese dialects have more tones, some as many as twelve.
Vietnamese and Pinyin use accents as the tone marks for the Latin alphabet. Each accent shows an altered sound for the syllable. Most syllables have only one tone marking, but the letters in the syllable can be altered by other markings. Syllables usually form one word in un-hyphenated compound words.
Pinyin may have style differences because its use is to help Westerners. On the other hand, Vietnamese has a national script that always follows the uses the same style.