A question of tone

mende tone data

Many languages in the world have a distinction between “tones”. So if something is said with
a high-pitch, it means something different from if it is said at a mid-pitch or low-pitch. You
don’t have to have perfect-pitch to hear it as everyone starts talking at different pitches! It is
how much it goes up and down that matters.
The tones are normally shown with accents. But the example here is also shown with musical
notes as that might make it clearer.
Consider the words shown above. These come from Mende (a language spoken in Sierra Leone).

How many different “notes” are there?

We say that these notes are "the tones". We call them Low (L) and High (H).
The first word has 1 vowel and the tones H L
The second word has 3 vowels and the tone H (we don’t repeat it if it is the same note as the
last one)
For the other four words, how many vowels are there and what are the tones?
You should find that two words have the same tones as each other and another two words also have the
same tones as each other.


How many tones can appear on one vowel?

(To answer that, you will have to figure out how
the accents show the tones).
In Mende, each word has a set pattern of tones. Starting at one end of the word, the tones are
placed on each vowel, with each vowel getting one tone till you run out. Which end does this
start at?
What happens if tones are left over?
What happens if vowels are left over?

Finding out more about tone

This is a slightly simplified version of Mende, but basically, if you have answered the
questions, you now know the main way that tones work in Mende! They stretch out or
squeeze up to fit the word! If you look up this site you should be able to find out much more
about tone in many different languages.

 

Answers

There are 2 “notes”. L and H

  • 1 vowel and the tones H L
  • 3 vowels and the tone H 
  • 1 vowel and 2 tones LH (note how the accent is a combination)
  • 3 vowels and 2 tones LH
  • 1 vowel and 1 tone H
  • 2 vowels and 3 tones LHL

2 tones can appear on one vowel (actually 3 can, but not here)

The tones are distributed from left to right.

If tones are left over, they bunch up on the last syllable.

If vowels are left over, the same tone is repeated.

More information

This is a slightly simplified version of Mende, but basically, if you have answered the questions, you now know the main way that tones work in Mende! They stretch out or squeeze up to fit the word! If you look up this site you should be able to find out much more about tone in many different languages:

Tonal languages (Wikipedia)

And more information on Mende can be found at:

Ethnologue