Unconflating Chinese, part 1: General tonal confusion

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2013/12/03 16:02 +01:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2013/12/03/10467831.aspx

Previous posts in the series:

I am reminded of a comment from friend and colleague John Cowan from years ago talking about Chinese:

The (simplified) story with the tones is this:

Middle Chinese had four tones, conventionally named ping, shang, qu, ru. Ru tone was used only for syllables that ended in a stop: p, t, or k.

In each of the modern dialects, one or more of these tones split into two tones, conventionally called the yang and the yin varieties, mostly on the basis of whether the original syllable began with a voiced stop, r, or l (yin) or not (yang). Voiced stops have been lost in the Chinese languages (other than Shanghainese, which is radically different and may not be a tone language any more).

In Mandarin, ping tone split into modern tones 1 (yang) and 2 (yin), shang tone became modern tone 3, and qu tone became modern tone 4. Ru tone disappeared when Mandarin lost all final stops, and the syllables were redistributed among the other tones.

In Cantonese, the story is way more complicated. All four of the old tones split, and what's more, ru tone split *twice*. Consequently, ping tone became modern tones 1 (yang) and 4 (yin), shang tone became modern tones 2 (yang) and 5 (yin), qu tone became modern tones 3 (yang) and 6 (yin), and ru tone became modern tones 7 and 8 (yang) and 9 (yin). That's your nine tones, which represent a full structural analysis.

However, except for the final stop making the syllable shorter, tones 7, 8, and 9 are pronounced exactly like tones 1, 3, and 6 (some older speakers still pronounce 1 falling and 7 level, but for most they are both level now). This is why on the phonetic level the nine structural tones are reduced to just six.

In addition, there are two "changed tones" which have no counterparts in the other dialects, and which signal a variant meaning of the basic word (unlike other tones, which have no individual meanings any more than a vowel or a consonant has). So structurally there are really 11 tones, but the changed tones are phonetically just lengthened versions of 1 (or 7) and 2, leaving us once more with six.

Well, that does hint at some of the complexity of the language, and all of the Cantonese coverage of the language itself.

It shouldn't matter now so much, at least. Could it be less important? It is just some of the general tonal confusion of the language, crucial to the people who used it and a pointless distraction to those who did not...

I wonder how many people worry about it...

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