Archive for Tones

Don't be afraid of tones

So says Stuart Jay Raj, a Thai-based Australian polyglot who speaks several tonal languages.  Here is a half-hour video by him which is linguistics heavy, but is actually an effort to simplify and systematize how tones work.  For example, Raj makes a sharp distinction between pitch and tone, something that many people get all mixed up about.  Not to mention intonation, which we have often discussed on Language Log.

In this episode, Raj focuses on Burmese, but in other presentations he focuses on different tonal languages and on general principles.

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Tone vs. syllable in Cantonese

Andus Wing-Kuen Wong et al., "Tonal and syllabic encoding in overt Cantonese Chinese speech production: An ERP study", PLOS ONE 2023:

Abstract: This study was conducted to investigate how syllables and lexical tones are processed in Cantonese speech production using the picture-word interference task with concurrent recording of event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Cantonese-speaking participants were asked to name aloud individually presented pictures and ignore an accompanying auditory word distractor. The target and distractor either shared the same word-initial syllable with the same tone (Tonal-Syllable related), the same word-initial syllable without the same tone (Atonal-Syllable related), the same tone only (Tone alone related), or were phonologically unrelated. Participants’ naming responses were faster, relative to an unrelated control, when the target and distractor shared the same tonal- or atonal-syllable but null effect was found in the Tone alone related condition. The mean ERP amplitudes (per each 100-ms time window) were subjected to stimulus-locked (i.e., time-locked to stimulus onset) and response-locked (i.e., time-locked to response onset) analyses. Significant differences between related and unrelated ERP waves were similarly observed in both Tonal-Syllable related and Atonal-Syllable related conditions in the time window of 400–500 ms post-stimulus. However, distinct ERP effects were observed in these two phonological conditions within the 500-ms pre-response period. In addition, null effects were found in the Tone alone related condition in both stimulus-locked and response-locked analyses. These results suggest that in Cantonese spoken word production, the atonal syllable of the target is retrieved first and then associated with the target lexical tone, consistent with the view that tone has an important role to play at a late stage of phonological encoding in tonal language production.

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Hypercorrect Mandarin tones

Here are two examples.  The first is the (in)famous one about the "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den":

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That's one of the extreme nicknames for Xi Jinping that are being used to avoid censorship.  It consists of the three tones for his name, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.

Likewise, netizens are referring to him as "2-4-2".  He is also called "N" because that reminds people of ↗↘↗. 

Another emerging Xi nickname is “n-butane,” whose chemical line-angle formula somewhat resembles the three tonal marks or an elongated “N.”

A diagram showing the chemical structure of n-butane, composed of four methylene (CH2) molecules connected by three lines, which resembles an elongated "N".

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Impressive speech in Taiwanese by Australian representative

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Some recent news and posts from

OMG, it’s nougat (4/15/23) — "OMG" borrowed into Mandarin

A long post on puns, multiscriptal writing, and the difficulties of Hanzi.

Puns piled upon puns.

Microsoft Translator and Pinyin (4/15/23)

Microsoft's not very good character-to-Pinyin conversion.

They have the resources and could surely do better.

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"Plastic Mandarin"

That's a literal translation of “sùliào pǔtōnghuà 塑料普通话” ("Plastic Mandarin") or “sùpǔ 塑普” for short.  "Plastic" here means "artificial, inauthentic, fake"; in Changsha Xiang topolect (also known as Hunanese), the first syllable is a homophone for "bad", so the short form also means "bad Mandarin".

Chenzi Xu, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, is from Xiangtan (population nearly 3 million), a prefecture-level city in east-central Hunan province, south-central China. an hour's drive from Changsha  She went to a middle school in Changsha (population over 8 million), capital of Hunan province, so she knows the local language well.

The hometowns of several founding leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Chairman Mao Zedong, President Liu Shaoqi, and Marshal Peng Dehuai, are in Xiangtan's administration, as well as the hometowns of Qing dynasty and republic era painter Qi Baishi, scholar-general Zeng Guofan, and tennis player Peng Shuai.


Other notables who hail from Xiangtan include the Taiwan politicians Ma Ying-jeou and James Soong, so this is a place whose language habits bear considerable weight nationwide.

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The sound of swearing

Trigger warning:  I'm VHM and I do not approve of this message in its entirety.

Article by Elizabeth Preston in NYT (12/6/22):

"Curse Words Around the World Have Something in Common (We Swear)"

These four sounds are missing from some of the seven words you can never say on television, and the pattern prevails in other languages too, researchers say.

Starting with the second paragraph:

A study published Tuesday in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that curse words in several unrelated languages sound alike. They’re less likely than other words to include the consonant sounds L, R, W or Y. And more family-friendly versions of curses often have these sounds added, just like the R in “shirt” or “fork.” The finding suggests that some underlying rules may link the world’s languages, no matter how different they are.

“In English, some of the worst words seem to have common phonetic properties,” said Ryan McKay, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London. They’re often short and punchy. They also tend to include the sounds P, T or K, “without giving any obvious examples,” Dr. McKay said. These sounds are called stop consonants because they interrupt the airflow when we’re speaking.

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"Happy Birthday" melody formed from tones

A PRC graduate student in Chinese literature at Indiana University sent along this clever arrangement of "Happy Birthday":

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Mount a chariot

This has always been a bone of contention with me ever since I started studying Buddhology and Sinology in the late 60s and early 70s, when everybody I knew — Chinese and foreigners, scholars and laypersons alike — pronounced 大乘 and 小乘, the Chinese equivalents of Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna, respectively as dàchéng and xiǎochéng.  But that didn't make sense to me, since Mahayana means "Great Vehicle" and Hīnayāna means "Small Vehicle", i.e., modifier + noun construction, so I formed the opinion that, in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) they should be pronounced as dàshèng and xiǎoshèng.  Consequently, I began to use these pronunciations — dàshèng and xiǎoshèng — for Mahayana and Hinayana, rather than dàchéng and xiǎochéng.  At first it seemed odd, causing editors and reviewers to "correct" me.  Slowly, however, over the decades, other scholars began to adopt these readings, dàshèng and xiǎoshèng, until now most knowledgeable Buddhist specialists use them, although the lay public, by and large, still pronounce them dàchéng and xiǎochéng.

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Pinyin with tones on labels at a TCM research facility

(TCM = Traditional Chinese Medicine) 

Photograph of a small portion of specimen jars at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies northeast of Philadelphia in Warminster, Pennsylvania:

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Jichang Lulu

That's the name of a treasured Language Log reader and contributor (see under "Selected Readings").  When I asked him how to write that in Sinoglyphs, he told me that it is this:

飢腸轆轆 / simpl. 饥肠辘辘

Wanting to get the tones, I typed "jichanglulu" into Google Translate (GT), but forgot to click the space bar to make the conversion to characters with Hanyu Pinyin transcription complete with tones.  When I pressed the speaker button to hear how that sounded, what came out was something like Mandarin with an English accent, but still perfectly intelligible:  "jichanglulu".  It resembled the Mandarin produced by the strangers on the street who read off the Pinyin texts handed to them by my wife, Li-ching Chang.  She was always delighted when she heard them pronouncing Mandarin without ever having studied it.  "Jichanglulu" — see, you can say it too!

Adding the tones, we get jīcháng lùlù.  What does this somewhat odd assortment of sounds signify?

GT says "hungry", more literally, "hungry intestines are rumbling".

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Sinitic ideophones

I have always felt that binoms are a key to studying early vernacular Sinitic.  (See "Selected readings" below for useful references on this topic.)  Now we have a valuable research tool for access to and analysis of premodern Sinitic binoms, which fall within the purview of the tabulated listings introduced here:

The Chinese Ideophone Database (CHIDEOD)
L’ ensemble de données des idéophones chinois (CHIDEOD)

In: Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale (Brill)

Authors: Thomas VAN HOEY and Arthur Lewis THOMPSON

Online Publication Date:  26 Oct 2020

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