One of Mandarin's biggest characteristics is its tones. Other Sinitic dialects/topolects aren't any different: Cantonese, Hakka, etc.


Are there any toneless Sinitic dialects/topolects? (Japanese?)

  • Maybe Shanghainese?
    – Yang Muye
    Jun 28, 2014 at 14:37
  • 3
    @YangMuye That's probably the closest. In Shanghainese, there's a two-way phonemic "tone" contrast, but the tone of the first character in a word determines the realization for the entire word. Because of this, you could describe Shanghainese as a "pitch accent" language rather than a (contour) tonal one. Jun 28, 2014 at 20:31
  • 2
    Just a side note, Japanese probably isn't anywhere near a "Sinetic" language. Borrowing characters and words from another language doesn't make it to be in the same language family. Although it's indeed toneless.
    – xji
    Jul 1, 2014 at 1:10
  • 1
    @AnonJ Japanese has pitch accents, not tones, a similar feature. Jul 2, 2014 at 16:58
  • @YangMuye Strictly speaking Shanghainese does have tones. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghainese#Tones Jul 2, 2014 at 16:59

2 Answers 2


In modern Shanghainese and some other of Wu dialects, the adherence to the five tones has basically diminished in speech (still exists when referring to single characters), and converted into three pitches(low, mid, high).

Pitches for the same character, however, do vary through speech. For example, notice how the pitch for character 大's one pronunciation "da" differ from word to word: first the characters, then Shanghainese and corresponding pitch, then meaning, and finally the character's Mandarin Pinyin.

High: 澳大利亚 [O-da-li-ia] {lo-hi-md-md} (Australia) Ao4-da4-li4-ya4

Low: 大世界 [Da-su-ka] {lo-hi-md} (an entertainment venue) Da4-shi4-jie4

Mid: 大饼 [da-ping] {md-hi} (large flatbread) da4-bing3

(I'm not using any established romanization system for Shanghainese, instead I just used my own way for this ad hoc purpose.)

I couldn't find the definition to "pitch accent language," so I can't answer you whether Shanghainese has become one.

  • @dda I'm sad to see that "Shanghaian" was edited to "Shanghainese". I always thought the latter violates the convention of demonymy: "Shanghai" end with a vowel hence should be postfixed "-an", as in "Korea" - "Korean" or "America" - "American". However if you mention "Java" - "Javanese"...I maintain "Shanghaian" looks and sounds better....^_^
    – nicobili
    Aug 3, 2014 at 6:45

The Northern Qiang language a

Northern Qiang is a Sino-Tibetan language of the Qiangic branch spoken by approximately 60,000 people in north-central Sichuan Province, China.

is not a tonal language.

and weirdly:

Unlike its close relative Southern Qiang.

  • Language contact with a Sinitic topolect occurred in Southern Qiang, whereas Northern Qiang is more isolated and more phonologically conservative. According to Stanford & Evans 2012, "contact with the local Chinese language led to a reinterpretation of lexical stress (still present across NQ varieties) as an H tone", then "contour tones developed from initial sonorant clusters".
    – Michaelyus
    Feb 8, 2019 at 9:37

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