Is Arabic A Tonal Language? (Well.. No, But Here's Why You Might Think So)

avatarMille Larsen
2 mins read

I've been surprised to see a lot of people ask throughout the internet if Arabic is a tonal language.

Arabic is not a tonal language. In Arabic, pitch and intonation of syllables do not change the meaning of words like it's the case with tonal languages. There are, however, a number of phonetic features in Arabic, which might be confused with tones, such as changing vowel-length and the glottal stop.

Tonal languages are characterized by utilizing tones or the pitch of the voice to differentiate between words. There are neutral tones, tones where the pitch goes down, up, down and then up as well as a few others.

People who speak non-tonal languages usually have a hard time learning to pronounce them as well as telling the difference. For an example, watch the video below, where the Chinese syllable "ma" is used to illustrate how tones can turn it in to several different words.

Now - why would people think that Arabic is a tonal language?

There are some aspects of the Arabic language that could lead people to think so.

One is vowel length. Arabic has three short vowels and three long vowels. There's a difference between the word "kataba" (كتب) meaning "he is writing" and the word "kaatib" (كاتب) which means "writer". But the difference isn't in the pitch, but rather in the amount of time the vowel is pronounced.

Arabic is also known for using the glottal stop. A glottal stop is when you suddenly block the air flowing through your vocal cords, making an abrupt pause in pronouncing a word. An example could be the word "Imra'atun" (امرأة) meaning woman. (To hear the word pronounced, go to google translate and click the little loud-speaker icon).

But while the Glottal stop is a strange feature in the pronunciation of Arabic, it's not a tone.

So no, Arabic is definitely not a tonal language!

If you'd like to learn more about Arabic, go read my article about How I learn Arabic.