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About 70% of world languages in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas are tonal, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Punjabi, Yorùbá, Igbo, Luganda, Ewe, and Cherokee. The other languages, including Indo-European languages such as English and Hindi, are not tone languages.
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 and Korean. 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 most famous example "mā má mǎ mà (妈麻马骂)" has four different words each pronounced in exactly the same way but with four different tones. If numbers identify the tones, they can be written ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4, which means "mom hemp horse scold." Some ways of romanization mark each tone by a different spelling; ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4 in Pinyin would be written ma mha maa mah 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 (施氏食狮史). 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 and uses the same style.