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Cantonese Tone Sandhi


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Is there a rule(s)?

Some 4 4 change to 4 2: 阳台42,楼盘42, but not 人缘44,行程44

Some 2 5 and 3 5 change to 2 2 and 3 2 respectively: 丑女22,靓女32 (vs. 美女55) but not 丑妇25 and 对垒35

Some 6 4 change to 6 2: 事头62,but not 事头婆644

So chaotic...

Has anyone studied Cantonese tones?

Also, for some reason I find it hard figuring out whether a tone is 3 or 5, if it's not on a "si" word. For example, going through the different tones of the 女 sound, I find hard to determine whether 女 itself belongs to 3 or 5.

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There is a short discussion here


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C Chiu writes[...

...according to 廣州話方言詞典 (1996), from which I now try to translate into English and give a gist, we can offer some impressionistic observations as follows. [The asterisks * used below denote a tone modification.]

Firstly, tone modification mostly occurs for phonetical purposes. Generally speaking, when two characters of a compound noun both have an original tone in the lower register (Tones 3 to 6), then the second character would most likely have its tone raised to Tone 2 in the upper register. Examples: 後門 /hau6 mun4*2/, 乖女 /gwaai1 neui5*2/, 地下 /dei6 ha6*2/. This type of change accounts for the great majority of occasions for tone modification. On some rare occasions, upper-register tones need to be changed to the lower-registered ones as in 爸爸 /ba1*4 ba1/, 媽媽 /ma1*4 ma1/ to avoid two high-pitched tones in succession.

When the word 左 is added after some verbs to convey a past tense, the verbs might need to change to Tone 2. Example: 食左飯 sik6 jo2 faan → sik2 faan. When the word 一 is inserted between two 試, then 試一試 si3 yat1 si3 might become 試試 si2 si3, with the first 試 acquiring a Tone 2. However, these two phenomena are the result of sound contraction rather than tone modification.

Secondly, tone modification may occur for semantical reasons. For instance, a change to Tone 1 from the lower-register tones would convey some hidden meanings of "trivial", "inferior" and "contemptuous" connotation which might just be the opposite in the original tones. Examples: 靚仔 /leng3*1 jai2/ ("pretty" becomes "callow"), 咁大 /gam3 daai6*1/ ("big" becomes "small"), 一個人 /yat1 go3 yan4*1/ ("single" becomes "single and alone").

We can also find in some nouns where a change to Tone 2 from the lower-register tones would convey a slightly different meanings from the original. Examples: 糖 /tong4*2/ ("sugar" becomes "candy"), 銀 /ngan4*2/ ("silver" becomes "coins"), 皮 /pei4*2/ ("fur" becomes "fur coat").

Some adjectives are composed of two identical characters, e.g. 紅紅 /hung4/, 圓圓 /yun4/, 熱熱 /yit6/. On such occasions, the first character of such compounds needs to be raised to Tone 2 to mean "very", i.e. "very red", "very round", "very hot". If a third character 哋 is added after the two-character compound, then it is the turn of the second character to be raised to Tone 2 and the whole meaning changes to "slightly red", "slightly round", "slightly hot".

Thirdly, tone modification also occurs for grammatical purposes. For many verbs and a few adjectives and classifiers, a modification to Tone 2 would also change the words into nouns. Examples: 話 /wa6*2/ ("tell" becomes "words"), 掃 /sou3*2/ ("broom" becomes "sweep"), 架 /ga3*2/ ("erect" becomes "shelf").

All the above are observations which merely indicate the occasions where tone modification might occur. There are no specific rules for a general application across the board. Even if such tone changes occur for a certain word, there might still be an equal amount of occasions where exceptions are more than the rule. For instance, we have a tone change for 門 /mun4*2/ in 前門, 後門, 橫門, 熱門, 冷門, and 專門 (when it means "specially"), but it also retains the original tone of /mun4/ in 大門, 正門, 鐵門, and 專門 (when it means "technical").

In short, habitual pronunciation is the rule.


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Has anyone seen links to macros to convert Cantonese tone numbers to tone marks (e. g. based on Yale romanization. fong2 fat1 (彿因) -> fòngfāt (?). I think writing such a macro would be harder than the one for Mandarin - more syllable combinations.

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