When intonation overrides tone, part 4

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Some folks think that intonation never overrides tones, but I'm convinced on the basis of empirical evidence that it does.

For example:

Nǐ xiǎng gàn hā 你想干哈 –> Nǐ xiǎng gàn há 你想干哈 ("what do you want to do?") — especially in the Northeast.

Here are some other examples — all of them provided by native speakers of MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin):

1. 不( bù ["no"]):Sometimes, I would say  不 ( bú) even though there is no falling tone character after  不 to invoke tone sandhi, such as "我不  ( bú)". This happens when somebody asks me to do something I don't like, I will say 不 ( bú) to express my rejection. 
2.中间 (zhōngjiān ["in; among; between; amidst"]): Sometimes, I would say 中间 (zhōngjiàn)to emphasize the place.  I think most people will commonly pronounce this phrase as  中间 (zhōngjiàn), but it is "wrong". 
3. 都 (dōu ["all"]):   I will pronounce this character as dóu when I want to emphasize the meaning "all." For example, 我都  (dóu) 写完了 I finish them all, 他都 (dóu) 吃完了,he ate them all. But here, I am thinking about whether I am influenced by 东北 Northeastern / dongbei topolect because I think dongbei people will commonly use the pronunciation dóu .

4. 谁  (shui ["who"]) : when I want to ask who it is, I would say 谁呀 (shéi ya). I don't think people may say “shui” in oral language. 
5. 慢慢的 (mànman de ["slowly"]), 好好的 (hǎo hǎo de ["well; good"]):When I was a little child, my parents used to say “慢 màn 慢 mān 的”, and “好 hǎo 好  hāo 的”. I think the changes of the pronunciation imply their commanding tone that I should slow down or I should be obedient. 
6. 过去 (guòqù ["past"]) 出去 (chūqù ["go out"]): Sometimes, I would change both 去 from “qù” to “qie”. It is a good way to highlight the nature of the movement of 过 and 出 because 去 loses its tone.
7. 多 (duō ["much; many"]): When 多 becomes an adverb of degree, such as 多好呀 ("how good!"),多美好 ("how wonderful!"),多浪漫呀 ("how romantic!"). The pronunciation will change from  duō to duó. For example, 这个多 duó 贵呀 ("how expensive this is!"). This change of tone from first to second emphasizes the adjectives. 
I am thinking that maybe some of the intonations are influenced by different topolects, and people gradually get used to saying them in a non-standard way for MSM, and put these intonations into different contexts. 


Intonation overriding tone.  I can't think of such cases in either Mandarin or Yuyaonese 餘姚話, the tongue of my mom's hometown, which is near Ningbo in Zhejiang. If someone is totally outraged, I can imagine it occurring, but I don't think there's any standard variation. Chinese don't pay attention to tones 99% of time they speak — unless someone gets them wrong, which would have an impact on the meaning. 
Because tone is an integral part of the semantics of spoken Chinese language, intonation hardly ever supersedes it — at least from my experience. Or I'd say tone doesn't exist in daily communication among the Chinese, except when it's wrong. Of course people from different areas pronounce things differently, but I think that's another question — what is assumed here is a relatively homogeneous linguistic group.
Does tone ever change then? I think yes in the cases of some final particles — you can give them a tone with an intended meaning since their usual lack thereof makes it easy to add tone, e.g., 啊 à, 嘛 má, 啥 shá / shà, but even in the latter cases people often speak such particles in the fourth tone to poke fun at Northeasterners who are perceived to have a proclivity for the fourth tone that sounds funny to people from elsewhere.

Normally, when people say "aloha", the first syllable has medium pitch, the second is higher and accented, and the third is lower and unaccented.  When I was in Hawaii during the break, I heard foreigners (including US mainlanders), saying the first two syllables in a lower pitch and unaccented, while the third was exceptionally rising and accented.  It sounded definitely alien to me.  It was difficult to tell whether the people who did this were intentionally wanting to make the one word of Hawaiian they knew sound more exotic, or whether it just unconsciously came out that way.  Perhaps it was a kind of self-mockery.  Cf. this "'Ni hao' for foreigners " (10/11/16).  Regardless of the motivation, the usual pronunciation (pitch, accent, and tone) of "aloha" and "ni hao" ("how are you?" in these instances were both radically changed, including by some native speakers, but for special purposes and effects.

Three takeaways from this brief exercise:


Even in morphosyllabic (notice that I did not say "monosyllabic") Sinitic topolects and languages, one must take into account the existence of suprasegmental features.  In living speech, one cannot just focus on the canonical tones prescribed in dictionaries for single characters.


Native speakers of Sinitic topolects and languages are customarily not conscious of tones "99% of the time".  It's only when a pronunciation strikes them as "wrong" that they become aware of it.


Actual speech, whether within or across topolects and idiolects, affords a great deal of leeway for the execution of tones according to context (urgency, despondency), emotion (extreme joy, anger or outrage) musicality (rap, pop), and so on.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Jinyi Cai, Zeyao Wu, Karen Yang, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 2:15 am

    I take it that A, B, & C are three different native speaking informants
    who each sent in the comments listed in their respective sections?
    (I won't try to pair them with the names thanked at the bottom.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 3:49 am

    Is there something missing in 'Sometimes, I would say 不 ( bú) even though there is no falling tone character after 不 to invoke tone sandhi, such as "我不 ( bú)".' ?

    The space after the open parenthesis in "我不 ( bú)" suggests to me that the author might perhaps have intended to type "我不 (wǒ bú)".

  3. David Marjanović said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 5:51 am

    Could wǒ bú be short for wǒ bú yào?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 6:08 am

    There are four persons thanked at the bottom of the post.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 6:13 am

    In my (admittedly limited) experience, David, the more conventional abbreviation of "wǒ bú yào" is "bú yào" rather than "wǒ bú". I would interpret "我不" as "I don't", but that may be in error since it is not a phrase I recall hearing in real life.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 8:01 am

    Native speakers of Sinitic topolects and languages are customarily not conscious of tones "99% of the time". It's only when a pronunciation strikes them as "wrong" that they become aware of it.

    Does this differ from any other aspect of language?

    Using feminine pronouns to refer to women draws no attention. Using masculine ones draws immediate attention.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 8:11 am

    Nǐ xiǎng gàn hā 你想干哈 –> Nǐ xiǎng gàn há 你想干哈 ("what do you want to do?") — especially in the Northeast.

    Does the há actually derive from 哈, the sound of laughter? I would have interpreted it as a reduction of 什么, like 啥, in which case the rising tone would be expected.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 5:16 am

    A thought — all of the responses in the initial post were from "native speakers of MSM" (Victor's words), but their responses were expressed in English, indicating that they at least partially bilingual. Their exposure to the use of tone in spoken English may therefore at least partially explain their willingness to use what I will term 'tone mutation' (a clearly different phenomenon to 'tone sandhi') in their native language. It would therefore (IMHO) be very worthwhile seeking responses from purely monolingual native speakers of MSM with (ideally) as little exposure to other spoken languages as possible.

  9. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 6:16 am

    @Philip Taylor

    Any references about this 'tone mutation'? Could you elaborate a bit?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 6:17 am

    All school students in China are required to learn English from the first grade, and, in many cases, children begin to learn English from kindergarten and pre-school as well, and this continues through college and graduate school. This has been going on for decades. Most people I know under the age of fifty in China have had extensive exposure to English and are more or less familiar with it. Indeed, it would be difficult to find many individuals in China who are completely devoid of exposure to English through schooling, movies and other types of entertainment, the internet, travel, and so forth.

    What is "the use of tone in spoken English"? Does English have tones? Is tone a regular feature of English?

    When native speakers of MSM or other Sinitic language or topolect who also know some English speak their native tongue, I do not detect any "tone mutation" (whatever that may be) or other phonological change evoked through contamination by the English they may know to different degrees. If this were true, it would mean that the native language of all persons on the planet would be distorted by the second (and third, fourth…) language they have studied.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 10:17 am

    "Tone mutation", Antonio, was just a phrase I coined to to cover the situations outlined in the original post, where a speaker deliberately (or subconsciously) substitutes a non-canonical tone for the canonical tone in a language for which tone is an integral part, and in a context where tone sandhi does not come in to play (or perhaps even in one where it does, but where it not the sandhi that is of interest but the mutation).

    In answer to Victor's « [w]hat is "the use of tone in spoken English" », I was referring to what is more generally referred to as "intonation" — the deliberate (or subconscious) use of pitch and amplitude variation to convey more that the bare words themselves could. Example : "Are YOU going to the cinema ?" / "Are you going to the CINEMA ?" — where the upper-cased word would be pronounced with a stressed rising tone to indicate the key element of the question. In the first, it is the person that is of the essence; in the second, it is the destination.

    As to Victor's "contamination" idea, I think that it is not as impossible as he seems to believe. L1 speakers of British English with no exposure to spoken French will, in the main, pronounce "ensemble" as /ɒn ˈsɒm bəl/; those with considerable exposure to spoken French are more likely to pronounce it /ɒn ˈsɒm bl/. OK, "ensemble" is originally a French word, but it is now a regular part of everyday English (at least, for those for whom classical music is of some interest). Are there 100% English words which might be pronounced differently by those with considerable exposure to other languages ? I suspect that there are, but none come immediately to mind.

  12. Chris Button said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 5:26 pm

    In living speech, one cannot just focus on the canonical tones prescribed in dictionaries for single characters.

    I think there are two things going on here:

    1. Reduced tones in compound syllables and grammatical particles (similar to schwa reductions in English)

    2. Intonational tone interfering with lexical tone (it's not really a case of one lexical tone being used for another, but rather that the intonation warps the realization of the lexical tone)

  13. Lyrics said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 8:12 am

    First of all, Thanks to Victor and then Philip.
    For your nice explanation on 'Tone mutation' in respect of English language. Good topic as well as the discussion. We also know about the same from the very first step while learning phonics or even singing rhymes using the phonics with the children's.

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