When intonation overrides tone

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Practically everybody has heard of the fabled Grass Mud Horse (cǎonímǎ 草泥马), which is a pun for "f*ck your mother" (cào nǐ mā 肏你妈). China Digital Times, which pioneered research on "sensitive words", including "Grass Mud Horse", has just introduced a new feature, which should prove to be a useful resource for China scholars and journalists: "Two Years of Sensitive Words: Grass-Mud Horse List".

You will observe that not one of the tones of cǎonímǎ 草泥马 ("Grass Mud Horse") matches the corresponding tone in the original cào nǐ mā 肏你妈 ("f*ck your mother"), yet no one has the slightest difficulty in comprehending that the former is meant as a pun for the latter.

The problem of the importance of tones for understanding was extensively discussed in the comments to this Language Log post. Note especially this comment, where it is pointed out that expressions like "wo cao ni ma" (original tones 3 4 3 1 ["I f*ck your mother"]) will be understood regardless of the tones that are applied to them. Indeed, from the 80s up to the present day, my colleagues and I have been extensively experimenting with toneless written Mandarin and have found that speakers with native fluency automatically add the correct tones, so long as the text is written in an orthographically proper form. By "orthographically proper", I mean that the official rules for word formation, punctuation, and so forth are followed. Of course, we want our learners of Chinese languages to get the tones "right", so for pedagogical purposes and in dictionaries, tones should definitely be marked. It's the same with primary and secondary stress in Russian, which are marked in language textbooks and dictionaries, but not in typical texts for adults.

Let us examine these four variations of "wǒ cào" (which have been circulating on Weibo [China's Twitter clone]):

N.B.: No Chinese characters are given for the four items that are being explicated.

The glosses read as follows:

biǎo fènnù 表愤怒 ("indicates anger")

biǎo jīngtàn 表惊叹 ("indicates surprise")

biǎo qīngmiè 表轻蔑 ("indicates contempt")

biǎo yíwèn 表疑问 ("indicates doubt")

All four variants are saying "I f*ck [your mother]", but they employ a variety of tones to convey different nuances and emotions.

To complicate matters further, I should note that, because the actual character for writing the "cao" syllable of "wo cao" is considered to be incredibly vulgar (cào 肏, which consists of "enter" over "flesh", both graphically depicted), it doesn't exist in normal fonts, and even when using large fonts or writing by hand, nearly all "decent" folk avoid using cào 肏, substituting for it cāo 操 (which literally means "grasp; hold; operate; do; exercise"). Cāo 操 is thus both a graphic and euphemistic substitution for cào 肏. Nonetheless, although they are pronounced with different tones, everybody (even those who would never themselves use cào 肏, know full well that cāo 操 in the first tone is standing in for cào 肏 in the fourth tone. Thus, what used to be wǒ cào 我肏 ("I f*ck") has now become wǒ cāo 我操 ("I do [i.e., f*ck]").

The question of how intonation relates to tone also has an important bearing on the interaction between musical tune and linguistic tone. What happens when the contours of a melody are superimposed on the lyrics of a song? For example, what is the result when a rising second tone syllable meets a falling glissando? Well, the melody is going to win out over the tone, just as intonation wins out over the tones in the examples discussed above. Yet, since the linguistic tones have been distorted or completely changed, how is meaning conveyed? These are questions that deeply perplex students of Chinese music theory.

To get an idea of how powerful intonation can be, just think of the little syllable "oh" in English, which can mean any number of things depending on the way it is uttered and suprasegmental aspects of the sentences in which it occurs.

[Thanks to David Moser]


  1. dw said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    Not sure why this surprising. After all, most English speakers would recognize "fick yer methore", even though all the vowels have changed.

  2. dw said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    The question of how intonation relates to tone also has an important bearing on the interaction between musical tune and linguistic tone. What happens when the contours of a melody are superimposed on the lyrics of a song?

    A similar phenomenon affects languages and dialects that have length distinctions. For example, in speech I distinguish "Mary" from "merry" almost entirely by length. In singing, where the length of each syllable is narrowly constrained by the music, it would be much more difficult for me to make the distinction.

  3. Adam said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    If I sang a text in English or Russian (for example) which used the correct words but had the stress on the wrong syllable in many words, the result would still be perfectly understandable but the incorrectly stress would be noticeable and would make the song seem a bit off or forced. Would Chinese text sung with the wrong tones sound similarly off or forced?

  4. Gordon said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    In Krahn, a Kru language of Liberia, which has a 4-register tone system, singing is sometimes preceded by a spoken recitation of the lyrics so as to help people follow when they are sung.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 11:06 pm


    Surprise is not a relevant or legitimate issue here. This post is about phonological change due to intonation or musical tune / melody. What motivated you to change all those vowels? Is there some operative principle behind the changes? Do they convey some sort of meaning/ emphasis / nuance / emotion? Or are they just random?

  6. Rubrick said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 12:30 am


  7. Amy said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 12:31 am

    I'm not sure "fick yer methore" is quite close enough a comparison, as to me it just sounds like a non-standard accent.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be like the Britney Spears song "If you seek Amy" (F.U.C.K Me)? There is little phonological difference between the two, perhaps only context (or maybe rhythm/stress?) could separate which meaning was wanted, which seems closer to what is happening in the Chinese example.

  8. Jukka Kohonen said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 1:57 am

    When I took an elementary Chinese class, the teacher stressed that tones must be correct, otherwise it is impossible to understand.

    Then he played some Chinese pop music – where obviously the musical tune overrided tone. I asked how the song can be understood at all, with all the tones wrong. He said it's no problem.

  9. JQ said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 2:15 am


    Well, you can't really sing with tones at all, the most you can do is to try to match the tone contours with the melody. It would sound a bit off if very different but stress on the right characters can also be important. If you don't have the lyrics in front of you, it can be hard to understand (as "modern" English songs are)

  10. Noa said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 2:41 am

    In my own research on the subject of speech tone accommodation in Kunqu melodies, I discovered that during the Ming and Qing this issue has often been raised. Opinions on methods of execution varied: while some requested to disregard speech inflections (tones) when matched with melodies, others elaborated on rules of ornamentation and filling in of a skeleton melody (much of it at the hands of the singer) according to the -relative- placement of speech inflections in spoken language etc.. These were aesthetic debates of high art, that did not necessarily pertain to common culture, or intelligibility of the text.

    cǎonímǎ is an example of a common homophone that would be understood in any situation in popular culture (despite, if not due to , its homophonic nature). Other non homophonic examples would include simple texts like Zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè (祝你生日快乐) or other common language such as that which appears in popular pop songs. When contemporary popular songs are composed, or when texts are used with prescribed melodies, or even borrowed melodies (many times influenced by american pop culture), the aforementioned rules of relative composition etc cannot apply, and still the text is understood by the listener, yet it may not sound "right" to some. However, this might not apply to other, perhaps more complex texts, or situations in which the context is less obvious.

    I would suggest that part of the debate ove speech inflections and melody is completely aesthetic and was held between scholars who expected certain rules to be followed, rather than losing the meaning once speech tones were unclear, or mistakenly altered (but please note that they were, and are, able to recognize speech tones by the contours of the melody and its ornamentation). On the other hand, I would suggest that the complexity of the text used, and its familiarity in common speech also plays its part in the ability of the listener to "fill in" the correct meaning.

    **(a simple example of familiarity of complex text from Europe would be latin mass, that would perhaps not be understood by a commoner, but its text would be unmistakably recognized when heard by those who attended mass (commoners and elite alike). Because of its familiarity, and despite its complexity and language, it can be taken out of context and still be recognized by certain audiences).

  11. maidhc said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 3:24 am

    When I listen to some types of Chinese or Vietnamese singing (not pop music so much), I hear lots of slidey ornaments. The same kind of ornaments are found in instrumental music too. In principle vocal ornaments could be used to represent the rising, falling rising, and falling tones without interfering with the contour of the melody. To clarify what I mean, a rising tone could be represented by sliding into the main pitch from below, and so on. Since I don't speak the language, I don't know whether this is a technique that is actually used, but it would be quite possible to do.

    I hear a fair amount of Vietnamese singing from day to day, and to my unpractised ear it sounds as though they are trying to to combine the tones with the melody, because you constantly hear these little slides and wiggles. I must admit that my exposure to Chinese classical music has mostly been on the instrumental side.

    To go entirely in the other direction, the famous talking drums of West Africa represent a tonal language by reproducing only the tones and speech rhythm, while all the vowels and consonants are removed. However redundant content is added to improve comprehension.

    It is common practice in singing in English in classical style to substitute vowels of a more Italian nature, and it doesn't seem to bother many people. It can be difficult to understand the words, but that is due to many factors, of which vowels are only one.

    So the cào/cāo substitution, is that the reason why "fuck" turns up in those Chinglish menus? "Done in a chili garlic sauce"? I seem to remember a suggestion that "do" can mean "fuck" in English, but it's not a common usage.

  12. Noa said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 3:31 am

    Also, the Hebrew alphabet uses Nikkud [dots and lines below and inside the letters] to clarify pronunciation and vowel sounds. While children learn to read with Nikkud, adults no longer have the need for it when reading books or newspapers. However, in Poetry and high language (especially less familiar language such as when reading the bible, or non modern documents), Nikkud is always used. At times, when an author foresees the reader may have trouble with pronunciation, or when a word may have more than one meaning that may fit the context, he/she may add the Nikkud to a single word. I think this is a problem that exists only in the written language, and not in speech.

    יִשָּׁלֵף נָא אִזְמֵל הַדִּקְדּוּק, אַל יָנוּחַ!
    יְקַלֵּף שִׁבּוּשִׁים מִדִּבּוּר וּמִשֶּׁלֶט!
    אַךְ מִדָּה יֵשׁ וּגְבוּל, כִּי מֵרֹב הַצִּחְצוּחַ
    הוֹפְכוֹת הַמִּלִּים לִפְעָמִים לְשֶׁלֶד!

    (Natan Alterman, To the War of the Kamatz and the Tseire [an entire poem effects of Nikkud, and against the Hebrew Language Committee], 1936 )

    The pronunciation of many of these words would be difficult to determine to a modern Israeli without Nikkud, since they can be read in a few ways. If these words were put to a melody, they would have to be scrutinized for correct pronunciation, to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

    Here is another section of the same poem, once with Nikkud and once when only the difficult words have Nikkud:

    שׁוֹכֵב, מְיַבֵּב: – מֵחַיַּי טוֹב מוֹתִי…
    אֵלִי, לְמִי אֲנִי עָמֵל?
    קִוִּיתִי לִהְיוֹת לְנָמָל אֲמִתִּי
    מִתְגָּרִים בִּי:

    שוכב מיַבּב: – מחיי טוב מותי…
    אלי, למי אני עמֵל?
    קִויתי להיות לנמל אמִתי
    מתגרים בי:


  13. maidhc said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 3:53 am

    In related tonal news, the town of Richmond Hill, Ontario, is abolishing the number 4 because of 四/ 死.

  14. Meesher said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 4:28 am

    Arabic also uses vowel diacritics only in texts for children and foreign learners, and in religious contexts. I'm struggling to think of an equivalent in English.

  15. joanne salton said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 4:51 am

    I would have thought all Mandarin teachers struggle with this issue quite a lot, because it obviously doesn't matter how you say the tones on very simple and common phrases – they will largely be understood. Students thus are often not motivated to bother with tones too much, but that returns to haunt them when they try to express more complex things.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 5:23 am


    "So the cào/cāo substitution, is that the reason why 'fuck' turns up in those Chinglish menus? 'Done in a chili garlic sauce'? I seem to remember a suggestion that 'do' can mean 'fuck' in English, but it's not a common usage."

    No, it's due to graphic confusion of a single simplified character, 干, that collapses several traditional characters into itself. It is pronounced in various ways and means a lot of different things, including "do; dry; fuck". That's why you'll often see these meanings mixed up — with disastrous results — when inferior translation software is relied upon.

    We've written about this a lot on Language Log; two relevant Language posts:

    "The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation"


  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 5:38 am

    For all those who are wondering about the intelligibility of Chinese texts / songs spoken / sung with the "wrong tones", this is also a topic that we've discussed many times on Language Log, most recently in this comment:


    to this post:

    "The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads"


  18. GeorgeW said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 5:42 am

    In English, we use context to disambiguate the many homophones. Would context be a factor in understanding Chinese lyrics?

  19. Jerimiah said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 6:03 am

    From what I understand, the fourth Wo Cao indicating doubt is so labelled because the author is poking fun at English's "questioning tone" (as studied in Chinese), which is typically compared to a 2nd tone.

    Also, I would suggest that in this usage, Wo Cao is being used as an independent exclamation, separate from [your mother], much as how English speakers would use "Fuck!" with different intonations to express different emotions.

    Of relevance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyMSSe7cOvA (the many intonations of "dude", I'm sure it has been covered here before)

  20. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 7:22 am


    "Would context be a factor in understanding Chinese lyrics?"

    Absolutely yes!

  21. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 7:26 am



  22. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    By an amazing stroke of good fortune, I came across a Chinese website that gives much fuller explanations and examples of the four different variants of WO CAO discussed above, and even adds a few more!


  23. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 8:35 am


    I wouldn't say that it's "poking fun" at the "questioning tone" of English, as perhaps mimicking it. In fact, I often hear Chinese using a rising intonation when they ask a question, so it's probably not directly related to English at all.

  24. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    On "oh": two pseudo-words that form an interesting example are "mm-hmm" and "uh-huh". These seem to have little meaning in themselves and exist mainly to carry bisyllabic intonation patterns. In particular, the same intonation pattern gives the same meaning regardless of which of the two you use. I can get all kinds of distinct meanings out of these, ranging from enthusiastic affirmation to puzzlement to impatience to noncommittal acknowledgement. "Okay" seems to be able to carry most or all of the same set.

    I've long noticed that when you hear someone else's half of their phone conversation, while the other party is speaking, the person you can hear tends to respond with a lot of raw intonation carried by such words as these and "oh" and "hmm".

    It amazes me that these all get derided as "filler" material when they are so information-rich! Is there a term for these beasts? Some name for the class of pseudo-words that mainly convey nonverbal information? They might get more respect if such a term were widely known.

  25. Ellen K. said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 9:19 am

    @Amy. Now, I haven't hear the song, but, as far as the phrases when spoken, seems to me there's a huge difference between "if you seek Amy" and "F.U.C.K. me". Starting with the first vowel. Unless one stresses the "you" in the first, thus taking the stress off "if", but that leaves a stress pattern that would be very odd for spelling out a word. The K is also quite different, but perhaps that's less noticeable when sung than in speech.

  26. Ellen K. said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    P.S. Okay, I guess stress difference can also be less distinct in song than in speech.

    In short, maybe it works in song, but no way do those sound alike when spoken.

  27. Ted said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    Aaron Toivo's comment puts me in mind of Leo Rosten's definition of Yiddish "nu."

    And on the subject of stress (which strikes me as not quite the same as, but closely related to, tone — or, at least, it seems that tone can be one element used to indicate stress), consider Rosten's famous seven-word sentence:
    "I should buy two tickets to her concert?"

    (See explication here.)

  28. Sima said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss Jeramiah's point on this.

    Chinese students, as you know, spend a lot of time in English classes and one of the very few things they learn about intonation is that you should go up at the end of questions. Obviously, this can produce some horrendous results. But if 'poking fun' sounds a little strong, there's certainly considerable self-awareness in the use of features of English in Chinese.

    I would agree that there may be other explanations, and suprasegmental intonation in Chinese may come into play, but think jeramiah makes a very good point. I would also agree with his suggestion that this usage is extremely close to English 'fuck'.
    As I live next to a Chinese basketball court, and consequently hear the expression in a range of intonations approximately 14,327 times a day, on average, I'll try t start paying more attention, and even see whether I can get some recordings.

  29. Ray Girvan said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    @Adam: If I sang a text in English or Russian (for example) which used the correct words but had the stress on the wrong syllable in many words, the result would still be perfectly understandable

    I dabbled with learning Russian a while back, and got the impression that Russian was more sensitive to stress than English. The example I recall being told was that the English stressing of the first syllable of the name Борис ("BORR-is", as opposed to the Russian "bah-REECE") sounded to Russians as wrong as someone pronouncing "Belinda" as if it rhymed with "calendar".

  30. Kelsey said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    After talking to some Chinese students about this topic, it seems to be the case that at least for popular music, there are certain rules that should be followed to ensure that the correct tones are perceivable. While lots of semantic information can of course be gained from context alone, listeners do perceive incorrect tones if the contours of the melody do not match the tonal contours of the spoken language. So the songwriters and lyric writers who are considered skillful are the ones who can either create a melody to match the tonal contours of the syllables it is meant to go with, or pick the most tonally appropriate words to match the melody they have been given. If they are unable to do this, native speakers who are listening will certainly perceive incorrect tones. Whether the incorrect tones impede comprehension probably depends on other factors, such as context. So in other words, native speakers seem to hear tone (even contour tones) superimposed, according to the melody.

    While it is not an exact correlate, this really calls to mind the McGurk Effect, in which visual cues cause listeners to perceive different sounds from the ones that are actually being emitted. In this case, though, rather than visual cues, it seems to be musical (tonal!) cues that cause native speakers to hear or perceive, or at least assign a tone to a specific syllable in a song. Taken out of context, it is of course impossible to hear a rising or falling tone on a musical note of a single pitch, but within the context of a melody that relates to at least the skeleton of the tonal contours, it is easier to understand how tone might be perceived or assigned even if most of us as non-native speakers of Chinese lack to ears or skill to do this ourselves.

  31. Matt said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    With respect to musical tone and linguistic tone, Sally Yeh (a Canto-pop star in the 1980s) has complained that 'singing in Cantonese is like singing in prison'.

    (source here: http://www.brns.com/hkactors/pages/page34.html)

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    For a less vulgar English example, consider that most Anglophones can (if sufficiently cued by context, perhaps . . .) decode the story of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" even though it is not actually homophonous (nor are any of its constituent words) with "Little Red Riding Hood." Sometimes punning and similar forms of wordplay rely on actual homophones with different semantic content, but at least in English and I take it Mandarin one can have wordplay where the relevant syllables and/or morphemes are not actual homophones but in some sense "close enough" phonologically (perhaps there is some way to quantify this?) to be decodable. It's probably broadly similar to the ability to decode deliberately misspelled taboo words (FCUK on those vaguely annoying t-shirts, for example) etc. Thus, the fact that wordplay can work perfectly well in Mandarin if you change tones doesn't mean tones are a trivial part of Mandarin phonology that could be dispensed with in general; it just sheds some light on how close is "close enough" to be decodable.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    Then we have the problem of songs (both tunes and lyrics) borrowed from abroad, so in that case you don't have a lot of leeway to play with the tonal contours or the words and the melodies. Otherwise, what Kelsey says about skillful songwriters and lyricists trying to match the tonal contours of their words to the melody, though sometimes what they are doing sounds all too obvious . Perhaps's that what Sally Yeh meant when she said that "singing in Cantonese is like singing in prison".

  34. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 5:44 pm


    If you Google on 我操, you'll find that most of the hits are related to a woman, and the most common woman is usually the mother of the person you're cursing.

    And, of course, you must know that China's "national swear word" (guómà 国骂) is "his mother's" ( 他妈的) (Lu Xun has a great essay about it), and you can probably guess what "his mother's" is referring to and what is to be done to it.

    I grant you, though, that, in some areas and instances, WO CAO is a simple sign of anger, not naturally related to someone's mother. The exact implication of WO CAO is highly topolectal.

    When someone says WO CAO (the Chinese could be wǒ cāo 我操、wǒ cā 我擦、wǒ cǎo 我草、wǒ kào 我靠、wò cáo 卧槽, etc., thus the Pinyin and characters may be quite different [completely unrelated to "I fuck"]), he usually just wants to express his strong emotion or frustration about something. It is not necessarily meant to be humiliating to someone else, although it is rude. And if 你妈 ("your mother") is added at the end of WO CAO or is otherwise present in the context, it definitely means what I said it did.

  35. JS said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    Toned rap is good… but apparently not typical.

  36. Halvor said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 5:43 am

    My old language teacher in Taiwan, who had at that point not visited Mainland China since before 1949, told me that in Beijing they would say wò cao (4th tone + neutral tone) to express surprise (and I suppose they still do). I think the main point here is not the relevance or irrelevance of the tones, but the fact that vulgar words are often either played with or euphemized, as when Norwegian uses "tisse" (or, in older upper-class speech, "nisse") for "pisse" (to urinate) or "fasken"/"farken"/"fasiken" for "faen" (the fiend, used as a swearword). Sometimes the vulgar word retains the original pronunciation, while a non-vulgar meaning of the same word is changed for euphemistic reasons, as when the Chinese character 入 has the historically irregular pronounciation rù in its original meaning 'to enter' and the regular pronounciation rì in its vulgar meaning 'to fuck' (now usually written 日).

  37. J.Xiao said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    This article reminds me of the problem of translated Christian hymns in Cantonese.

    Ever since the European missionaries arrived in Canton, they had been proselytizing and translating religious materials into Chinese. Many hymns were translated from their original languages (often English) through direct metaphrasing. The result was near-total disregard and distortion of the tones, and the wrong meaning inferred by the wrong tones in the hymns were often made fun of by others.

    For example, the word 'benevolent' or 'kind' is often translated as '慈愛' (Cantonese: ci4 oi3; Putonghua: ci2 ai4); however, such words were often the emphasis of the hymn and were usually placed on the highest notes in the hymn, which do not match the characters' relatively low pitches. As a result, these characters were often heard as '痴呆' (ci1 (ng)oi4), which means 'dementia, dim-witted'. Worse even, the word God (主, zyu2) underwent a similar process and become pig (zyu1). Now consider verses which contain the phrase 'benevolent God'…

  38. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 6:08 am

    @J. Xiao

    Beautiful, concrete example of what I was trying to say. Many thanks!

  39. Seringagest said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

    This post reminds me of something I overheard one night in Huzhou. I was walking to my apartment when I heard a woman's voice say lǎogōng. There was no answer. A few seconds later I heard the same voice say lǎogóng. Again, no answer. Then, a few seconds later, the voice said lǎogòng.

    Never mind that gōng is supposedly the one possible Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of 公.

    I naturally thought of the different tones in terms of punctuation: 老公. … 老公? … 老公!

  40. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 5:49 pm


    Beautiful illustration of the essence of this post!

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

    One of the ways I learn Chinese is via a website from Shanghai. Normally native Chinese speakers read the dialogs and they are very interesting.

    In contrast, when they've had different Americans speak Chinese in the lesson dialogs, I've found them consistently boring (when the same people speak English, they are usually interesting). I've wondered if it is because when reading the dialogs, they are focused on getting the tones right and as a result, lack some of the emotional intonation that makes language interesting.

    That is, in Seringagest's example, i.e., a native Chinese knows how to change the tone to emphasize a point/express emotion and still be understood. In contrast, it is harder for non-native Chinese speakers to judge when you can/can't change the tone and still be understood.

  42. Jerome Chiu said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    @Adam (June 4, 2013 @ 9:42 pm)

    The tone-tune conflict is negligible in Mandarin, but easily noticeable in Cantonese. The following are two examples of how this works out.


    The subtitles to the first one indicate how the words actually sounds to a Cantonese speaker. But native Cantonese speakers are able to decipher most, if not all, of it.

    The performance of the second one exaggerates the twisted sounds (and therefore meaning) of the words being forced to conform to the tune without regard to their tones, a very common occurrence in church songs sung in Cantonese.

    Such tone-tune conflicts dates back to at least the Song Dynasty (ca. 11-13C). In a famous comment, lyricist Li Qingzhao poked fun at some of the most renowned writers and scholar-officials, saying that their prose was great, but just couldn't write lyrics that fit the tunes:

    Then there were Yan Yuanxian [Yan Shu], Ouyang Yongshu [Ouyang Xiu], and Su Zizhan [Su Shi], who approached the zenith in their scholarly endeavours; writing little lyrics was, in their cases, just like drinking water from the ocean with a gourd. But they are merely shi poems with uneven lines, which often do not conform to the rules of music [….] The prose writing of Wang Jiefu [Wang Anshi] and Zeng Zigu [Zeng Gong] resembles that of the Western Han Dynasty; but whenever they wrote little lyrics, people rolled with laughter, because their lyrics were unreadable.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    You should all consult Tsu-Lin Mei’s 1977 article, “Tones and Tone Sandhi in 16th Century Mandarin”, Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5.237-260. The article does two things. (1) It uses Korean material to show that 3rd tones tone-sandhi (i.e. “buy horse” 3-3 sounds the same as “bury horse” 2-3 already existed in 16th Century Mandarin. (2) Composers for QU lyrics should take care not to let musical tone interfere with lexical tone. An example is chun-1 “spring” in the wrong musical setting would sound like chun-3 “stupid”, which in turn make the composer look stupid.

    The Korean material is Laoqida, a text for learning Chinese, which in the 16th century version has “side dots” used to indicate tones in Chinese. There are various manuals for composing QU, and in one of these we have the warning to look out for melodies interfering with lexical tones.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    In the earlier part of his career, Tsu-Lin Mei was deeply interested in tones, especially the historical aspect. He began with HJAS 1970 “Tones and prosody in Middle Chinese and the origin of the Rising tone”. As I recall, the students made Harvard inoperative due to Vietnam War protests in 1969-1970, and that gave him the leisure to write his 1970 article. Then follows Mei 1977 “Tones and Tone Sandhi in 16th Century Mandarin”. He wrote another article on the phonetic value of the Rising Tone in Early Mandarin, arguing that it was high from the 9th C. to the 14th C. The prosody part in his 1970 article became the starting point of the long article on “Sanskrit Origins” that he wrote with me — actually when Dick Bodman worked on the Bunkyo hifuron for his dissertation. The other part of his interest in tones focused on tonegenesis, i.e., the qusheng (departing tone) came from the lost suffix *-s.

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