No, Arabic Isn't A Tonal Language

Asma Wahba

Author

Asma Wahba

We occasionally get asked by our students if Arabic is a tonal language. The answer is quite simple:

No. Arabic is not a tonal language.

It does not have tones like Chinese or Thai. You can't alter the meaning of words in Arabic by using a different intonation. Words carry the same meaning regardless of the pitch you use or the rising or falling intonation.

In a language like Chinese, you can take a word like ma and apply one of 4 different tones to the vowel, which completely changes the meaning of the word.

Arabic does not work like this.

Features of Arabic that may sound like tones

However, there are some phonetics aspects of the Arabic language that might trick listeners into believing there are tones.

Some of the letters may be confusing in this regard, such as ع and ا.

Arabic also uses short and long vowels that alter the meaning of stems. Take for example the stem ركب:

راكب

passenger, riding

ركب

he rode

Just by lengthening the middle vowel, the meaning of the word changes significantly.

Another one is the hamza (ء), which produces a glottal stop in Arabic. Though this is a fairly common sound in many languages, it may appear to be tonal to the untrained ear.

Arabic isn't tonal

Hopefully that clears it up.

Arabic isn't a tonal language, despite what you may have heard.

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