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Middle Chinese Tones (especially in Cantonese)


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I understand that Middle Chinese had four tones classified as 平, 上, 入, and 去 (level, rising, entering, and departing). When these changed into modern dialects, it seems that the words 陰 and 陽 have now been added to express where the former tones have given birth to two different modern tone patterns. Under this scheme it seems that the first and second tones of modern Mandarin both general come from the original 平聲. If this is true, which is the 陰 tone and which is the 陽 tone?

Also, it looks to me as if the words 平, 上, 入, and 去, 入, and 去 themselves may have been pronounced with their four respective tones, except for the apparently anomalous 上. Is this correct? I also notice that 上 seems to have a lesser used pronunciation (shang3) in Mandarin and that it has two different tones in Cantonese (seung5 and seung6). Both "shang3" and "seung5" seem particularly associated with the meaning "rising." Is this how 上 is normally pronounced in this usage, or can it be shang4 in Mandarin and seung6 (low level tone) in Cantonese?

I understand that the nine tones of Cantonese (according to some schemes) derive from the four Middle Chinese tones and that each tone split according to whether the initial consonant was voiced, unvoiced, or liquid. If this is so, there should be eight Cantonese tones. Where did the ninth tone come from? I think the mystery centers on why Cantonese now has three (high, middle, and low) entering tones (syllables ending in "k," "p," or "t"?)

I only have a little knowledge of Cantonese and cannot think of any examples of rhyming syllables that can be pronounced in the four entering tones (tones 7, 8, and 9?). Are there any examples?

I would also be curious about data in other dialects.

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It looks like you do have a Chinese dictionary (or maybe more than one). 漢語拼音方案, which can be found in better dictionaries and on the internet, says clearly in Section 4 that the first tone is 陰平, the second 陽平, the third 上聲("上" is pronounced "shang4" or "shang3" in Putonghua, and "seung5" in Cantonese), the fourth 去聲. There is no 入聲 in Putonghua.

Apparently you are curious about what you asked. But it strikes me as odd that you don't seem to be very proficient in the Chinese language. Wouldn't you think it would be more appropriate to study the language in its modern form more before, say, trying to compare the different tones of different dialects or how "Middle Chinese" was? (That said, I must confess that I know very little about these two aspects.)

I do not mean to offend you in any way. I do apologise if I already have.

I think someone else on this forum would give you much better replies.

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Go here: http://assets.cambridge.org/0521652723/sample/0521652723WS.pdf .

Wu dialects (with the exception of Shanghainese and a couple of other urban areas) have very clean splits (4-->8 ) into yin (voiceless) and yang (voiced). Cantonese no longer has voiced consonants, and exhibits an extra split like you said (the Middle tone). Your question is answered in the link above.

It is unclear exactly what the original Shang, Ping, Qu, Ru tones sounded like. One thing is for sure, the current tone classification for Mandarin maps very poorly; lots of movements and inconsistencies. And skylee doesn't really know what she is talking about.

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You are right. My interest is probably indeed odd. I am an amateur linguist and have a passionate interest in language and languages for their own sake. My path to studying Chinese has come through some very unusual scenery.

Another reason I am interested in things like Middle Chinese is that I am a pattern learner. The more background data I have, the more easily I can assimilate and retain new knowledge. For instance, I am one of those people who learns characters through trying to understand as much as possible about their etymologies. If I know something behind the reasoning represented by a character, I find it much easier to remember. Without this, I find it impossible.

I have no family, community, academic, or professional connection with Chinese and until very recently have been able to find only limited language material. What I know is self taught from books and tapes and trying to connect up the dots on my own. In such an environment, it has been hard to make steady progress in Mandarin. My interests have therefore branched out into basic Cantonese and classical Chinese, all of which I find mutually reinforcing.

I think I fully understood many Mandarin structures and phrases only when I studied something similar in Cantonese or classical Chinese and could better understand the logic behind them. Someone mentioned something similar on another thread. For instance, I understood the logic of a word like 可以, only after reading up on classical Chinese grammar and could figure out what the reason was for the 以.

Here are some other examples. The modern differences between 地, 的, and 得 are easier to focus on in Cantonese, where the equivalent words are pronounced differently. A word like 期 seems to have a Taiwanese pronunciation (qi2) that is different from Beijing Mandarin (qi1). This possibility is hinted at in the Cantonese pronunciation (kei4, I think), which correlates with "qi2."

A last example is as follows. It took me a while to realize that 結 had alternate pronunciations (jie1 and jie2) and that my memory was not faulty. I only figured this out when I learned that the Cantonese pronunciation had an entering tone. Entering tones seem to have been scattered across the four tones of Mandarin and sometimes seem to correspond to words that can be pronounced in different tones. Occasionally, when I cannot recall a tone in Mandarin, I can use Cantonese to jog my memory. For this latter process, it is again helpful to know as much as possible about how the Middle Chinese tones match up with the modern dialects.

As you can probably see from my twisted logic, I cannot argue against your inference that my interests are indeed odd :D; however, I have a few that are more conventional. I have a strong interest in ancient civilizations and in Taijiquan specifically. Because of this, it has also been worth my while to study some Wenyan and classical Chinese to work my way through relevant texts from time to time.

Ala, many thanks for your link. I greatly enjoyed reading through it and think I did indeed find the answer to my question. It seems that the 陰入聲 split along the lines of short and long vowels, leaving a high entering tone (e.g., 筆 bat1) and a middle entering tone (e.g., 八 baat). I wonder if these two tones are now separately named in Cantonese, or if people just use 陰入聲 for both and know which is which instinctively?

By the way, I have read from time to time that ancient Chinese (i.e., whatever Confucius spoke) may not have had tones at all. Do you have any interesting speculation about this? The argument, as you may know, appears to be that other Sino-Tibetan languages did not have tones and that tones may have arisen from contact with other languages as the syllabic structure of ancient Chinese was simplified.

Some of the evidence cited for this hypothesis is the alternate pronunciation of certain words, like 王 (wang2 and wang4) in classical Chinese, and the apparent correspondences in meaning and pronunciation between certain others, like 見 jian4 and 現. These alternations hint at suffixes or prefixes that may have been lost, but that maybe were not systematically reflected through the medium of characters. Your descriptions of near toneless Chinese dialects seems to make this view more plausible than I had previously thought.

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Finally I found the "other thread about tones" that you mentioned! Altair and ala wa! you are both very knowledgeable people! That analyses was superb! It would have been better if it was in Chinese, it took me about 3 hours to read through that. :roll: The Cantonese tones are:

1 高平声 High Level

2 高上声 High Rising

3 高去声 High Departing

4 低平声 Low Level

5 低上声 Low Rising

6 低去声 Low Departing

7 高入声 High Entering

8 中入声 Mid Entering

9 低入声 Low Entering

Sorry that I did not type in Traditional characters, I am a bit lazy. And I made the English names translating it literally based on the original tones of Middle Chinese:

1 平ping2 Level

2 上shang3 Rising

3 去qu4 Departing

4 入ru4 Entering

In this regard:

阴>>>高 Yin>>>High

阳>>>低 Yang>>>Low

This is true for tones 平1 Level, 上2 Rising, 去3 Departing.

For tone 入4 Entering:

阴入Yin Entering became two tones, 高入High Entering and 中入Mid Entering

阳入Yang Entering>>>低入Low Entering

About the origin of tones in Chinese, Ancient Chinese, Classical Chinese had no tones. Tones began to emerge later on. But I don't think the reason is influence from neighbouring tonal languages, but rather it is from the disappearance of many characters. The change took place when China was first unified in 221 BCE. The first emperor, 赢政Ying Zheng took great measures to unify the language, both script and speech. The resulting script was the new 小篆Lesser Seal(Small Seal)script. Many characters were lost, many times more than the recent transition from 繁軆Traditional script to 间体Simplified script. Characters were abandoned, simplified and homograph appeared. With this, homophones appeared. Of course, there were already some homophones during 東周Eastern Zhou. But homographs were quite uncommon before this change. I don't think there were any homographs at all. During the han dynasty, the government became more centralised, and institutes were formed to deal with these language issues. The first dictionary was also compiled, titled «說文解字»Explanations of Graphs and Analyses of Characters. The need for a common language spoken at court, a certain 官話 Bureaucratic Speech was developped with the "least common denominator" among the different dialects of the country. I described this in my post in the Speaking and Listening section. With this regard, evolution into a tonal language was inevitable. But when we study an old poem at the Language Institute, such as a selection from the «詩经-the Book of Songs», pitches are not marked, because there were none.

I hope this helped!

- Shibo :mrgreen:

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  • 10 years later...

OK I'm responding 10 years later. I suppose a lot has changed. Not sure if I'm allowed but


Using the conventional Cantonese IPA transcription, someone regarded it as a split depending on vowel length. I though, do not find the vowel length to differ phonemically or phonetically, thus I will say it depends on the vowel quality for the most part.


According the Parke, "short vowels have the high entering tone and long vowels have the middle entering tones". And of course characters that had a voiced initial in MC carry the 陽 entering tone.


Under my interpretation, it would be:

The Cantonese <a, ik, uk, eot> carry the high entering tone while <aa, e, it/ip, o, ut, oek> carry the mid entering tone.

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  • 3 weeks later...

To clarify, I was listing the vowels that would carry the respective entering tones.

I suppose there are different ways to call tones 7 and 8, some would call them 陰入 and 中入, while others call them 陰入A and 陰入B.

陰入A/陰入 refers to tone 7, which is phonemically equivalent to tone 1. Tone 7 only exists for characters that carry the vowels [ɐ ɪ ʊ ɵ] (of course, a final stop coda -p/t/k must follow), which I have written on my last post using the LSHK Jyutping Romanization (a[p/t/k], ik, uk, eo[t]). These are conventionally called short vowels.

While 陰入B/中入 only exists, for the most part, only for characters that carry these vowels: [a ɛ i ɔ u œ y], (LSHK aa, e, it/ip, o, u, oe, yu) which are conventionally analysed as long vowels. I myself disagree with this analyses, which is the reason I have not referred to them as long or short vowels.

There exist exceptions, but they don't seem to be the norm. gap3/gap8 would be one I could think of off the top of my head, though its literary pronunciation would probably either by gap1/7 or gaap3/9


To summarize, using the LSHK Romanization,

ap at ak ik uk eot ("short") have 陰入A/陰入/tone 7/tone 1


aap aat aak ep et ek ip it ot ok ut oek yut ("long") have 陰入B/中入/tone 8/tone 3


So whether a [陰]入 syllable in Middle Chinese has tone 7 or tone 8 in Cantonese depends on the vowel.

I have omitted the coda so as to simplify it on my last post, since the vowels relate to the tones the same way across all the stop codas.

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