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Dec 20, 2007

Regular correspondence in Taiwanese and Mandarin tones

I got the idea for this post after reading Kent. A Lee's paper on Chinese tone sandhi and prosody.

Everyone knows that trying to study Holo Taiwanese can be difficult, even if you speak Mandarin. One of these difficulties is the complicated tonal system. But there is a quick and easy way you can guess a Taiwanese tone using the Mandarin (or the other way around). This little entry will only be useful, however, that you know how to pronounce the different tones of both languages, and I’m not particularly interested in getting into a lesson on that here.

In Middle Chinese, there were four tone categories: the level tone, (平), a rising tone (上), a falling or departing tone (去), and an entering tone (入), with the entering tone being marked by a stop at the end of the syllable such as –p, –t, –k, or –h.

At some point a little later, when some of the oldest rhyme tables were being made, each category had split into two different tones, and they were then marked Yin and Yang. The result is eight different tones.

Although tones in the Sinitic language family have undergone drastic different splits and mergers in each language, there is still an underlying unity that allows you to use an understanding of these original tonal categories to gain an understanding of the relationship between tones in these languages.

Take Taiwanese, for example. Most students know that the sixth tone merged with the second tone, leaving only seven tones in modern Taiwanese.

What they normally don’t teach you in Mandarin is that a very similar thing happened. The four mandarin tones correspond to traditional tone categories: Mandarin 1st tone to Yinping, Mandarin 2nd tone to Yangping, Mandarin 3rd tone to Yangshang, and Mandarin 4th tone to Yinqu. The other traditional tone categories were merged; the two separate shang categories merged, the two qu categories merged, and the ru category disappeared as Mandarin lost final stops. Old ru category words mostly merged into modern day Mandarin second and fourth tone, but there are a good number of exceptions.

The following table should go a long way in helping you put the pieces together. Tones that disappeared or merged with others are marked by parenthesis.

M.C. Tone Yinping
Holo Tone 1 2 3 4 5 (2) 7 8
Mandarin Tone 1 (3) 4 (mostly 2,4) 2 3 (mostly 4) (mostly 2, 4)

You can see that 發's Mandarin pronounciation did not go to second or fourth tone, but rather to first. The entering (ru) category is the hardest to guess on things like this, but there is another hint that can let you know a modern Mandarin word was a ru word (if it ends in a vowel).

Now you’ll notice the beauty this system can have in helping you use your knowledge of one language to guess the pronunciation and tone in the other. Easiest of all, the 1st tone in Taiwanese and Mandarin almost always match, as do the Mandarin 2nd and Taiwanese 5th tone. For the others, there can be a couple of possibilities, but it’s still surprisingly helpful.

Let’s run an exercise both ways:

From Mandarin: 典, pronounced dian3; Mandarin 3rd tone corresponds to Taiwanese 2nd tone. Is 典 pronounced in 2nd tone in Taiwanese? Yes!

From Taiwanese: 語, pronounced gi2 or gu2; Taiwanese 2nd tone corresponds to Mandarin 3rd tone. Is 語 pronounced in 3rd tone in Mandarin? Yes!

I’ll make another post covering regular correspondence of consonants and vowels soon between the languages and tone sandhi. Between these three pieces of knowledge, you can really have an easier time improving your listening skills in the Taiwanese (or Mandarin) because you’ll be much better at guessing vocabulary.

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