Tone vs. syllable in Cantonese

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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.

I was very happy to read this paper because its findings corroborate my own informal investigations concerning the priority of CV articulation in syllables versus tones.  Hardly a week goes by when I don't ask my students from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan which bothers them more, mispronunciation of the consonants and vowels in a syllable or use of the wrong tones.  They invariably tell me that the consonants and vowels are more important than the tones.  During the last two decades, I've written many posts that allude to this question.  I've even encountered situations where students tell me that most people use the "wrong" tone(s) to pronounce their name, and it doesn't bother them at all, whereas they would immediately notice it if someone pronounced their name using the wrong consonants and vowels.  (See, for example, the first item in the bibliography.)


Selected readings

There are many other posts on the origins of tones, their canonical forms, departures from the canonical forms, tones in the various topolects, and the evolution of tones.

  • "Tones for real" (2/5/18) — must read for anyone who is interested in the point of this post, referencing the observations of John McWhorter on tones in Mandarin

A few posts that touch upon John's ideas concerning tones:

[Thanks to Ted McClure]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 8:05 am

    A fascinating study, and equally fascinating findings. Some anecdotal evidence which also suggests that tones are of secondary priority even for native speakers of tonal languages. My wife is Vietnamese born, L1 = Vietnamese (L2–L5 are Cantonese, Mandarin, English and German, although I may have the ordering of L3 & L4 switched), but she is far less fastidious than I regarding tone when pronouncing (e.g.,) the name of her home town (Đà Nẵng) or the name of our new chef (Tín) in casual conversation. If she is speaking to her mother in Vietnam over the telephone, then all tones are (as far as I can tell) canonical, but in casual conversation in the UK they can all but disappear.

    The converse of this is that correct use of tones can have the unfortunate side-effect of making the speaker appear fluent, even if he is anything but. On more than one occasion I have answered a Vietnamese visitor’s question "Where does your wife come from" with a correctly-enunciated but fast "Đà Nẵng", whereupon my interlocutor has immediately assumed that I am a fluent Vietnamese speaker (nothing could be more wrong) and launched into rapid colloquial Vietnamese, believing that I will understand. Of course, I do not …

  2. Chris Button said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 7:29 am

    I would like to see a similar study conducted for vowel length in Cantonese. Not just the two "a"s across the same environments but also in terms of allophonic variation of other vowels when in complementary distribution.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 12:47 pm

    I wonder if this is a universal property of tone languages. In west Africa there are languages that have morphemes which consist only of "floating tones" which combine with the tones of the "preceding" morphemes, so you can still tell where in the sentence they are even though they don't contain any segments.

  4. Chris Button said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 1:04 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    Japanese pitch accent is interesting in that regard too.

  5. Vampyricon said,

    January 26, 2024 @ 2:32 pm

    @Chris Button

    Anecdotal, but I find that vowel length takes a much lower priority than even tone for myself. In school, when we were droning on reading a passage, "short vowels" get dragged out just as long as long ones. (Though for perhaps a counterargument, listen to Hacken Lee's various renditions of Half-Moon Serenade, where the syllable 分 fan1 right before the chorus gets lengthened by, variously, dragging out the vowel or the final nasal.)

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