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Home Practical Chinese The Chinese languages not only have tones, they also exhibit, to a greater or lesser extent, a pheno
The Chinese languages not only have tones, they also exhibit, to a greater or lesser extent, a pheno
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The Chinese languages not only have tones, they also exhibit, to a greater or lesser extent, a phenomenon called tone sandhi. Sandhi is a Sanskrit word (the Sanskrit language has a long grammatical tradition, which explains the use of Sanskrit words in much of linguistic discourse). It refers to the change of sound in connected speech. A plainer way to say tone sandhi would be changes in tones when they are combined together. The tones that occur in combination with other tones are therefore called sandhi tones. In contrast, the tone that is uttered in isolation is called the citation tone.

Tone sandhi in Mandarin is mainly manifested in the Third Tone Rule, which describes the regular changes of the third tone to a second tone when another third tone follows. Thus:

Hěn hǎo àhén hǎo ‘very good’

Hǎo jiǔ à háo jiǔ ‘good wine’

What will happen when more than two third tone syllables are put together is quite interesting. The following example illustrates this:

Lǎo Lǐ mǎi hǎo jiǔ ‘Old Li buys good wine.’

à Láo Lǐ mǎi háo jiǔ

à Láo Lǐ mái háo jiǔ

à Láo Lí mái háo jiǔ

The last version has all the third tone syllables but the last one changed to the second tone. The different versions are due to the speed in which the sentence is said and to the grouping of syllables.

The Third Tone Rule applies across the board to all syllables having the third tone. But there are two minor tone changes that apply only to the word yì ‘one’ and bù ‘not’, both having the falling tone. Before another falling tone, both yì and bù change to the rising tone, i.e., yí and bú. Below are two examples:

Yì dìng ‘definitely’ --->yí dìng

Bù duì ‘not correct’--> bú duì

The tone sandhi rules in Mandarin described above do not lead to meaning changes in the syllables involved. But Cantonese, which otherwise is rather impoverished in terms of tone sandhi, has a kind of tonal changes that produce changes in meaning:

Tong (with rising tone) hai tong (with low tone) zou ge.

Candy be sugar make

‘Candy is made of sugar’.

So ‘tong’ with low tone means ‘sugar’ but changes its meaning to ‘candy’ when the tone is rising. Another example:

Ni gwo dan wong (rising) hou wong (low).
‘This egg yolk is very yellow’.
‘Wong’ with low tone is ‘yellow’ but changes its meaning to ‘egg yolk’ when the tone is rising. Isn’t there something in common between this and the sugar/candy case?

In dialects like Mandarin and Cantonese, most of the tones in context, i.e., the sandhi tones, are the same as when they are pronounced in isolation. Some other Chinese dialects such as Wu (especially southern Wu) and Min have considerably more complicated tone sandhi. In some of these dialects, the citation tone is only used for when single syllable words are uttered in isolation. In most situations the citation tone is not heard.

The existence of tone sandhi can pose a bit of a challenge to the first-time investigator of a dialect rich with tone sandhi. Imagine you ask someone how to pronounce a word, trying to find out its tone. You dutifully note down the tone. Just when you think that you know the tone of the word, you hear the word spoken with all other tones but the one you were just given. This is entirely possible, as sometimes the same tone can change in different ways in different contexts. This must have driven some inexperienced investigators crazy! It may even have created the impression that the tones are really unstable and people just pronounce them anyway they like according to their whims.

This impression of course is incorrect. However complicated tone sandhi in a language is, there are regularities that are strictly adhered to. The key to success in the elicitation of tones is context. To find out about the whole picture, you have to note down not just the tone for the word when it is uttered in isolation, but also all the possible tones in all different contexts. This is indeed not the first thing that naturally comes to mind, because the most likely tone for a word people give you will be the citation tone!

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