The British Council Teaching English site says:

English is not a tonal language – i.e. pitch changes in words do not change meanings. Patterns of pitch changes (intonation patterns) are [instead] used in English to indicate attitude.

However, we know the same expression "Sorry" may mean different things when used with a different pitch or tone, for instance:

  1. Please repeat (Sorry! with high pitch at end)
  2. Excuse me (Sorry, with normal pitch)

So, why does the above body consider English not to be a tonal language? Or am I in some way misunderstanding (as a non-native English speaker) the precise meaning of the term 'tonal language'?

  • 4
    See Is there a name for words which are pronounced differently depending on which definition is in play?, where no examples were offered before today (homographs are obviously a different matter, and intercategorial polysemes {like 'house' [n] and 'house' [v]} are often also considered as being separate words). Nov 7, 2023 at 11:46
  • 22
    Those two uses of "sorry" aren't really very different meanings. They're different senses of the same meaning of apology. The first apologizes for not hearing and making the speaker repeat themselves, the second apologizes for bumping into someone.
    – Barmar
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:39
  • 24
    This reminds me of a scene from ''Star Trek Enterprise'' where the linguist Sato is trying to learn a new language from an alien teacher. At one point she says "Can you say that again slower?" He says "If I say it slower, it means something else." Nov 7, 2023 at 17:09
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    Don't confuse pitch and stress, tonic or otherwise.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:36
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi this is usually seen as a secondary feature of the stress accent of English. Stress accents almost always come with secondary pitch changes (and pitch accents also almost always come with secondary stress changes). The only reason to call English's accent a pitch accent would be if the pitch is more reliably used as an indicator of accent location than stress (and to a greater extent than other languages typically said to have stress accents)
    – Tristan
    Nov 8, 2023 at 14:46

5 Answers 5


Sorry is still the word sorry no matter your intonation, though it may have different meanings in context. In a tonal language, say Mandarin Chinese, it would be an entirely different written form that the intonation represented.

jia(1) = home 家

jia(3) = fake 假

jia(4) = drive 驾

These would not be under the same listing in a dictionary and are not etymologically related to one another.

  • 19
    May be worth adding that this is a demonstration that Mandarin has lexical tone, while English does not. I.e. in Mandarin but not in English tone is widely used to distinguish between distinct words or lexemes.
    – bdsl
    Nov 7, 2023 at 14:49
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    Not only an entirely different written form, but, importantly, an entirely different word with an entirely different meaning, which your last sentence does make clear, but I would edit the earlier statement to make it explicit. Nov 7, 2023 at 21:36
  • I don't think I will ever understand how a Chinese person can look up an unknown word in a dictionary. You just heard someone say "jia", and now what? 😅
    – vgru
    Nov 15, 2023 at 17:41
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    @vgru It's all about context. Fortunately there's usually an accompanying character or two that helps to disambiguate, but even then the question of which character someone is referring to frequently comes up. Lots of puns.
    – DW256
    Nov 16, 2023 at 1:09
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    @vgru You look through the characters that can be pronounced jia in the tone you heard, until you find one whose meaning fits. It’s not so very different from how English works: you hear a word you don’t know, then you look up a few dozen different possible ways that word might be represented orthographically before you hit upon the correct spelling and find the word you’re looking for. Dec 4, 2023 at 21:30

You seem to be confusing intonation with tonality. English definitely has intonation (pretty much all natural languages do), but it is not a tonal language.

Tonal languages use tonality for either inflection or for differentiating between individual words which would otherwise be homophones.

In the first case, changing the tone of a noun may change it from being a definite noun to an indefinite noun, or from singular to plural, or even in theory change its grammatical gender. Similarly, changing the tone of a verb may change its tense or switch it from being first-person to third-person.

In the second case, changing the tone completely changes the word. Mandarin Chinese (and most other Sinitic languages) is like this. Using ‘ma’ as an example, there are five possible tones in Mandarin Chinese (mā, má, mǎ, mà, and ma); each one of them corresponds to a different word (that has its own character and dictionary entry), and getting the tone wrong completely changes the meaning of the word itself (for example ‘mǎ’ is ‘horse’, while ‘mā’ is ‘mom’).

Intonation, on the other hand, is about things that are not part of the words themselves. In English, a lot of what punctuation conveys in the written language (other than pauses indicated by things like commas) is conveyed using intonation in the spoken language. For example ‘The witch is dead.’, ‘The witch is dead!’, ‘The witch is dead?’, and ‘The witch is dead...’ would all have different intonation in spoken English. The overall meaning of the sentence shifts a bit in each case, but none of the individual words change their meaning even if their intonation changes.

Intonation in English also coveys things that would require extra words to convey in the written language. Using the above example, ‘The witch is dead!’ could be an expression of jubilation over the demise of the witch, or it may be an expression of disbelief that the witch was defeated, or it may even be indicative of fury at the fact that the witch died. In the spoken language, those cases can be differentiated by the intonation of the sentence together with other things like rate of speech, lengthening of vowels, and overall volume. But just like with the earlier examples of intonation, none of the words changes in meaning just because of the differences.

  • 2
    Also, each word of The witch is dead. can be stressed which then changes the meaning but not the pronunciation of those words.
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:21
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    Not at all pleased with this answer. Mainly because I was two thirds of the way through writing pretty much exactly this. +1 Nov 7, 2023 at 22:16
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    I'd just add that intonation also tells us about the grammatical structure of English sentences and also, even when it doesn't, can change the truth-conditional meaning of a sentence entirely. It is expressly not merely an indicator of attitudes and so forth. Nov 7, 2023 at 22:19
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    @AzorAhai-him- If the point of comparison is a language that does not differentiate between, for example, voiced and voiceless stops (or doesn’t even have voiced stops), then yes, I would in fact say that that’s an accurate statement. My goal here isn’t to be perfectly accurate, it’s to explain the general concepts to people who are not linguists, and I would argue that the way I’m describing things is a useful abstraction for that purpose even if it’s not ‘accurate’ (much like the Bohr model of the atom is not ‘accurate’, but still a pedagogically useful abstraction). Nov 10, 2023 at 2:43
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    @AzorAhai-him- Can you explain what you mean by “a generative process which is not how Mandarin works”? I don’t perceive anything confusing about the statement that tonal languages use tonemes (or tonal differences) for lexical differentiation. For exactitude, perhaps lexical definition would be better, since even tonal languages often have words where the tone does not actually differentiate anything (e.g., Mandarin 给 gěi or 忒 tēi, which have inherent but non-contrasting tone, since these syllables do not exist with any other tones), but ‘differentiation’ seems adequate enough to me. Nov 10, 2023 at 11:31

English is a semi-tonal or, more commonly, a pitch-accent language. The reasons you state are exactly why this category exists. Our tones don't literally change words like in Chinese, but can influence meaning.

  • 3
    Perhaps you should enhance your answer with examples. And how would this work in written English?
    – Barmar
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:19
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    What tones? We have intonation, pitch and stress. No tones except tones of voice. [ha ha]
    – Lambie
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:37
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    English is not a pitch-accent language (except, apparently, a few dialects like Hong Kong English, according to Wikipedia). It's a stress-accent language. Pitch-accent doesn't mean "uses pitch in any way at all," it means "uses pitch instead of loudness/length as the primary feature to express syllabic stress."
    – A_S00
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:07
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    @Lambie I'm not sure I like your tone.
    – Mitch
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:16
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    @Schmuddi I haven't read those works yet, but it's pretty clear that pitch in English is not analogous to the more canonical examples of pitch accent languages (e.g. things like Japanese, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian, much of Mainland Scandinavian etc) because it it doesn't operate at the word level (except to the extent that stress accents cross-linguistically almost always include pitch changes, and so if you squint could be analysed as pitch accents with secondary stress changes instead)
    – Tristan
    Nov 8, 2023 at 14:44

"Sorry!" in that example is the entire sentence and English, like many other non-tonal language, does have sentence-level tones. Another example is questions have a rising pitch.

There are a handful heteronyms in English, but some have non-tonal pronunciation differences (like "bass") and those that are purely tonal (like "affect" or "object") are polysemic.

Contrast that with a tonal language like Swedish which has tons of examples like "anden" ("the duck") and "anden" ("the genie" or "the ghost"), "akter", "banen", "brunnen" and many others where the only phonetic difference is the tones and the semantic content and etymology is different.

  • Re "anden" ... and "anden": Interesting. Not so in Danish and Norwegian: "anden" and "ånden" Nov 10, 2023 at 0:19
  • Words like affect and object are not differentiated by tone in English, but by stress. Stress and tone are not the same. @Peter Ande also exists in Norwegian in the sense ‘spirit’, and the pair works the same as in Swedish: anden ‘the duck’ has accent 1 (acute); anden ‘the spirit’ has accent 2 (grave). There is, by coincidence, an identical minimal pair in Danish, though with different words: anden ‘the duck’ (with stød) and anden ‘other, second’ (without stød) – stød being largely parallel to, and having the same origin as, accent 1/acute in Swedish and Norwegian. Dec 4, 2023 at 21:25

Let's dissect what British Council Teaching English site says, first:

English is not a tonal language.

This is a true statement. Why it's true? Because in English:

pitch changes in words do not change meanings.

And because one characteristic of tone languages (or tonal languages) is that the dictionary meaning of words (including single syllable words) changes with pitch.

Now, let's look at your concern:

However, we know the same expression "Sorry" may mean different things when used with a different pitch or tone, for instance:

  1. Please repeat (Sorry! with high pitch at end)
  2. Excuse me (Sorry, with normal pitch)

I understand that this phenomenon in English may be a common cause for the confusion over the difference between "intonation" and "tone" (I was confused before too). What your example is actually about is an application of intonation NOT tone. Why? Because: the dictionary meaning of the the English word "Sorry" doesn't change even the intonation (or the changes in pitch) is applied to it in the way you described above. So what you're concerning is not conflicting with what's on the site.

Moreover, both intonation and tone (and even stress) work on the same basis, the variation of pitch. It means the speaker varies the pitch of a syllable (or syllables) in a word (or a combination of words in a sentence) to create the desired effect. The difference is while tone languages, the effect of pitch variation does change the dictionary meaning of words (including words with just one single syllable), non-tonal languages does not. What English speakers can do though is to apply variation of pitch to add more additional nuances to the clause or sentence (like to express their emotion or feeling or their attitude toward some situation, etc.), like one in your example above. Regardless of this, the dictionary meanings of the words in the sentence or clause remain the same.

Bonus, pitch and frequency, are loosely speaking, more or less the same, strictly speaking they're quite different. Pitch describes the perception of the listener while frequency changes while frequency is a physical (acoustic) measurement for sound (waves). The study of frequency related to acoustic phonetics and is more complicated to further explain.

  • Resource and resource still have a semantic and etymologic relationship.
    – Sandra
    Nov 11, 2023 at 13:15
  • @Sandra but their meanings are still not the same right, say, if you mistook one instead of other it could confuse listeners.
    – Tran Khanh
    Nov 11, 2023 at 13:39
  • 1
    That's typical for polysemy.
    – Sandra
    Nov 11, 2023 at 20:51
  • @Sandra, Oxford dictionary lists the two words in different entries, Merriam Webster groups them on one page (but still two different entries). However, since stress is also created by variation in pitch (amongst other things), to avoid the controversy of that statement, I've decided to remove it and added some more details.
    – Tran Khanh
    Nov 12, 2023 at 3:39
  • Yes, they are separate lexemes but they have a polysemic relationship which disqualifies them as examples of language tonality.
    – Sandra
    Nov 13, 2023 at 7:58

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