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Summary Details

Query:   Contour-tone-only Languages?
Author:  Jennifer Alexander
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonetics

Summary:   Regarding Query:

Hi all,

Thank you so much to those of you who've responded to my query! A summary
of the responses follows below.

Jen Alexander, Northwestern University

Question: Anyone know of any tone languages that have only contour tones
(i.e., do not have level tones)?


1. Larry Hyman, UC Berkeley (personal communication):
''The following have been reported to have only falling and rising:
Ray, Punya Sloka. 1967. Dafla phonology and morphology. Anthr. Lx.
9.8, 9-14.
Amaya, María Trillos & Roberto Perry Carrasco. 1999. Longitud vocalica
del ette toara o chimila. Congreso de Linguistica Amerindia y criolla,

2. Te-hsin Liu, Paris 8 University:
''There are indeed many Chinese dialects having only contour tones without
level tones: Chengtu, Shanghai, Zhenhai, and Wuxi. By contrast, there is no
tonal system with only level tones in Chinese.''

3. Kemp Williams, IBM:
''I'm not sure whether Grebo (Kru, Liberia) uses level tones, but Paul
Newman wrote a paper in 1986 arguing that the contour tones in Grebo are
underlying and not combinations of level tones. The paper is in K. Bogers,
et. al. The Phonological Representation of Suprasegmentals, pp. 175-94,
Dordrecht: Foris. Title is 'Contour tones as phonemic primes in Grebo.'''

4. Roger Blench, Mallam Dendo Ltd.:
''I remember an old SIL textbook that claimed that Nung in Vietnam had only
contour tones. I can’t find the ref just now but worth checking. This Nung
is Tai, but there’s another Sino-Tibetan Nung language, so don’t confuse
them. Let me know if this turns out to be true.''

5. Mike Cahill, SIL International:
''I've been doing some cross-linguistic investigations in recent years too,
and I agree, I don't see any ''contour-only'' languages. I believe Ian
Maddieson in the World Atlas of Language Structures may have something to
say about all this, also in his articles on phonetic universals. I hope
you're also aware of Larry Hyman's ''X-Tone'' site, at It has only 54 languages (so far!),
but is a helpful resource.

In one way, we wouldn't even expect to find ''contour-only'' languages,
because this would imply a language has a complexity without also making
use of simplicity. However, predictions about what is possible in languages
have been falsified often enough so I wouldn't stake my reputation on this.''

LL Issue: 18.1302
Date Posted: 30-Apr-2007
Original Query: Read original query


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