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tonal languages

From:Florian Rivoal <florian@...>
Date:Wednesday, January 8, 2003, 3:17
Yesterday, i bought a book on shanghainese language. Living in shanghai, i thought i
could be a could idea to take some of the local language in addition the the
widely spoken "common language" that mandarin is. shanghainese is generaly
called a dialect of mandarin, but it is wrong. it is a dialect of the wu
language, which is one of the many languages spoken in china, together with
mandarin, and cantonese...

As a language learner, i was horified by this book, but as a linguist, i found it
pretty interesting. If anyone here is into tones, I guess you may be interested
by the following.

I don't know if everyone knows much about tones, so i'll make a short
introdcution to them first through mandarin, and then show you what i found
about shanghainese.

At the same time, if someone know more than me (that's not very difficult),
corrections are welcome.

skip this part if you don't want to read once more the mandarin tones

Tones is about changing the height (and possibly the lenght) of a syllable. kind of
singing, if you want. i will note tones using a 5 degree scale. 1 is low, 5 is
The tones in mandarin are phonemic, and linked to morphems just like vowels and
consonants. It counts 4 tones plus a neutral tone.
Long 44, short 14, long 213, very short 41. neutral tone is a not accentuated one
used in quite a lot of compounds.
To make it more intersting, there are some rules of sound change when the syllabs
are not isolated. The number 3 looses the raising part (thus becoming 21) when
it prececeds any other tone than 3 or neutral. before an other 3, it changes to
tone 2. More over, there are some exceptions. for exemple, the word "bu4"
(marking negation) gets second tone before any other 4th tone.
On the first look, it can seem troubling, but actualy, this aint so complicated.

come back here for shanghainese, here is a copy of what my books says
so here are the basic tones of shanghainese
1st : long 53
2nd : long 34
3rd : long 13
4th : short 55
5th : short 22

the entering word of a compound can get a final glotal stop(as explained later) noted "?"
the initials of the first tone (53) and 2nd (34) are voiceless sounds
the initials of the 3rd tone (13) are all voiced sound exept nasals sounds and the lateral "l".

The tone will change when two or more words are pronouced in series. The tone
change in serial pronounciation can be divided in two groups. the extensively
used form, and the infrequently used form.

The characteristics of the exensively used form are: in a serialy read word group,
the first word is generaly not prounouced in original tone, but in a fixed
tone. for example: the tone 53 is transformed into 44, 34 into 44, 13 into 33,
55 into 44 and 22 into 11. the tone change of the first word affects the tone
of the following words which also lose original tone, in despite of rising and
falling tone. the fixed form of the tone change is formed by combining the
first word with the following words. according to the various tones of the
first word, the tones for two-word group, three-word group, .., five word group
tend to be changed. general rule are shown in the following table:

1sr word'stone | two words |   3       |  4           | 5
               |           |           |              |
53             |  55 21    | 55 33 21  | 55 33 33 21  | 55 33 33 33 21
               |           |           |              |
34             |  33 44    | 33 55 21  | 33 55 33 21  | 33 55 33 33 21
               |           |           |              |
13             |  22 44    | 22 55 21  | 22 55 33 21  | 22 55 33 33 21
               |           |           |              |
55             |  33? 44   | 33 55 21  | 33? 55 33 21 | 33? 55 33 33 21
               |           |           |              |
22             |  11? 23   | 11? 22 33 | 11? 22 22 23 | 22? 55 33 33 21
                                         22? 55 33 21

example: "shanghai" is read in series and zan13 he34 becomes : zan22he44
"shanghai dialect" zan13 he34 he13 ho13 becomes zan22he55he33ho21

note: i dont know x-sampa or any similar one, so the don't trust the consontants and
vowels i will gave in this example, they are not meant to be reliable, but
since i am discussing tones, it shouldn't be a problem

the infrequently used form of serial change only suits specified word groups. the
usage is very limited.

ok, here you are. above is roughtly an cut from my book, and since i haven't
started learning, i guess that i wont be able to explain much more that what i
just wrote. i just wanted to show you this system, cause i think it is shows
that natlangs are quite good at doing complicated things when they want. Does
anyone has a conlang (or natlang) with tonal rules as twisted as this?


H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>
Douglas Koller, Latin & French <latinfrench@...>