In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Tone: The present state and future potential*
  • Laura McPherson

As a tonologist, I have often heard very accomplished colleagues express trepidation toward tone, with statements like ‘Tone is too hard’ or ‘I don’t do tone’. We have been pushing back against this viewpoint for decades. Consider the following quote from Welmers (1959), which he repeated in 1973 and which Hyman (2011) quoted as still relevant over fifty years later:

Most language students, and even a shocking number of linguists, still seem to think of tone as a species of esoteric, inscrutable, and utterly unfortunate accretion characteristic of underprivileged languages—a sort of cancerous malignancy afflicting an otherwise normal linguistic organism. Since there is thought to be no cure—or even reliable diagnosis—for this regrettable malady, the usual treatment is to ignore it, in hope that it will go away of itself.

(Welmers 1959:1)

While this may be an extreme take, the attitudes expressed in it sound familiar to most tone specialists that I know, even now in 2019. And yet to some, to acknowledge that linguists still find tone difficult is to somehow validate this point, and so (it seems) it would be better to deny that anyone finds it hard than to talk about what we can do to truly dispel any remaining myths and fears surrounding tone.

Given this situation, I decided to turn the lens of study away from language and onto linguists themselves to find out what our current attitudes really are toward tone. In June–July 2018, I ran a short anonymous survey to find out how much experience linguists have with tone and tone languages, what their attitudes are toward tone, and how they approach tone in their teaching. The survey was granted IRB exemption by Dartmouth College and was administered through the online service SurveyGizmo. I advertised the survey on social media and a variety of listservs, including LinguistList and LingTYP. Ultimately, I received 518 responses from fifty-nine countries (based on IP address), of which 392 were complete. I report on this latter group here.

The goal of the survey was to elicit responses from linguists at different stages of their careers in order to address the question of whether younger linguists might have different attitudes toward tone than older ones. In the end, unfortunately, undergraduates made up only 3% of respondents. However, analysis of the results revealed no significant difference in responses between any of the groups, and so I collate all results here.

Questions fell into four broad categories: experience (including fieldwork and formal training), attitudes, the state of field (the extent to which tone is crucial for understanding phonology, morphology, and syntax and whether current theories can adequately handle tone), and finally teaching. Most questions asked respondents to rank their answer on a five-point scale from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’ (converted to −2 to 2 for analysis, with 0 as a neutral answer). The full results can be downloaded on my website (, along with commentary on individual questions. [End Page e188]

Here, I focus on correlations between experience, teaching practices, and attitudes toward tone. The interrelationship among these three appears to form a self-perpetuating cycle of bias against tone, but I suggest that with a bit of effort, we could convert this same cycle into one promoting proficiency and comfort with tone and tonal analysis.

Some survey results give us reason to be hopeful about the current state of tone. For instance, 73% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘I find tone to be fascinating’. Of course, this may be due in part to it being viewed as ‘exotic’ or outside the bounds of ‘normal’ language, but I nevertheless take this to be a positive result. Further, only 13% of respondents reported not being able to hear tone. Thus, even if many find tone to be challenging, the raw ability to hear tonal contrasts is there. Taking into account the field as a whole, participants were asked to assess the degree to which they found tone to be crucial to phonology, morphology, and syntax.1 The overwhelming majority agreed that tone is crucial for phonology (89...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. e188-e192
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.