Ep05: The Neutral Tone

Ep05: The Neutral Tone
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In this episode, we’ve talked about the “neutral tones” in Taiwanese.

(These show notes use tables and rich formatting. Please visit the episode webpage for an optimal viewing experience.)

When we say “neutral tone”, it’s when words lose their original tones and become “shorter and lighter”, or “neutralized”. In Taiwanese, the neutral tone is called “khin-siann ”, which can be translated as a “light tone”.

In English, a rough analogy might be like how we “de-stress” certain syllables, and the vowels of those syllables often become a soft, light “schwa” sound (or /ə/ in IPA).

In the Tâi-lô (台羅) Romanization system, a word in the neutral tone is usually marked by placing two dashes before it. When using a number system, it is often referred to as “Tone 0”.

HOW DOES A “NEUTRAL TONE” ACTUALLY SOUND?

This “tone neutralization” often occurs to those little words attached to the end of a sentence, and they don’t create tone changes for the preceding syllable. In terms of phonology, there are two types of neutral tone.

  1. Fixed”: The pitch contour is always a short, mid-to-low pitch, or a mid falling tone, which is similar to a standard 3rd Tone.
  2. Dependent”: This “short and light” tone depends on what the tone is of the preceding syllable. In particular, when the preceding syllable is a 1st, 7th or 5th Tone, its tonal contour extends into the neutral tone word.
Preceding Word -- Neutral Tone Word Example
Tone 1 (high flat) -- high Tone 0 oo1--ê0-1the black one

khui1--ah0-1it’s open now

Tone 7 (mid flat) -- mid Tone 0 tuā7--ê0-7the big one

tīnn7--ah0-7it’s full now

Tone 5 (low rising) -- mid Tone 0 âng5--ê0-7the red one

lâi5--ah0-7he’s arrived

*Note that syllables that have been greyed out require a tone change

With this group, you stay at whatever pitch the preceding syllable ends on and extend it through the neutralized syllable.

However, when the preceding word is a falling or stop tone, i.e. 2nd (high falling), 3rd (mid falling), 4th (mid stop), or 8th (high stop) Tone, the neutral tone stays as the default short, mid falling (or low) tone.

Also note that some dialects don’t really have this strong “dependent” quality and tend to use the same short mid falling tone just like the “fixed” neutral tone.

THE FUNCTIONS OF NEUTRAL TONE AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

1. “De-emphasize” the word and shift the focus

Neutral tone words are more naturally found at the end of clauses or sentences. Those are usually verb complements, grammatical particles, exclamatory particles, question tags, and pronouns.

The purpose of using neutral tone on these words is to de-emphasize them so that you shift the focus elsewhere, giving more emphasis on the preceding words.

For example:

lim nn̄g puedrink 2 glasses (the quantity of 2 glasses of some liquid)

lim--nng-puejust drink 2 or 3 glasses (a few, a glass or two)

2. Differentiate word pairs

Sometimes you do see the neutral tone appearing mid-clause. This tends to be more like set expressions or nouns with a special suffix.

Since some neutral tones serve grammatical functions, and a few others are lexicalized as part of the word, they can help differentiate some word pairs.

For example:

āu-ji̍t” (set expression) some day in the future, a later day

āu--ji̍t” (set expression) the day after tomorrow

tsò-lâng” (set expression) to conduct oneself, to behave, to be a decent person

tsò--lâng” (set expression) (a female) to be married/betrothed to someone

khì” (free combination) didn’t go

--khì” (set expression) disappear; passed away

kuè-khì” (set expression) the past

kuè--khì” (free combination) to pass by; to cross over, to go over

kiann” (free combination) afraid of dying, fear of death

kiann--sí” (free combination) to be scared to death

LIST OF WORDS THAT ARE COMMONLY IN NEUTRAL TONE

We can’t get into every possible case when there’s a neutral tone, but here are some of the most common situations where it appears.

1. Nouns

Nouns with neutral tones often have “fixed” neutral tones.

surname + “--sian-sinn” (Mr.) e.g. “Tân--sian-sinnMr. Tan

surname + “--ka” (family) e.g. “Ông--kathe Ong family, the Ongs

--gue̍h/ge̍h” (month) e.g. “Sann--gue̍hMarch

2. Approximate amount

Expressions that refer to an unspecified or approximate amount tend to be “fixed” neutral tones.

--number + measure word e.g. “Lim--nn̄g--pue.Drink a few glasses.

--tsi̍t-ē” (a moment) e.g. “Sió tán--tsi̍t-ē.Please wait a moment.

--tsi̍t-kuá” (some) e.g. “Tsia̍h--tsi̍t-kuá.Eat some.

But if you have something following the word “some”, e.g. “tsia̍h tsi̍t-kuá bah” (eat some meat), “tsi̍t-kuá” is no longer at the end of a sentence, and is used as an adjective to modify “meat” so it just follows the normal tone change rules.

3. Question markers or tags

Question markers or tags at the end of a sentence tend to be “fixed” neutral tones.

--bô” (have… or not?) e.g. “I ū tshia--bôDoes she have a car?

--buē” (have… yet?) e.g. “Tsia̍h---buēHave you eaten yet?

4. Directional complements

These are suffixes attached to a verb to show more information about the direction of movement. They tend to be neutralized to a “fixed” neutral tone when they’re at the end of a clause or sentence.

lâi (come; towards the speaker) khì (go; away from the speaker)
Ji̍p / li̍p (in) --ji̍p-lâi / --li̍p--lâi --ji̍p-khì / --li̍p--khì
tshut (out) --tshut-lâi --tshut-khì
khí (up) --khí-lâi --khí-lì (--khí-khì)
lo̍h (down) --lo̍h-lâi --lo̍h-khì

e.g. “I tsa̋ng khà--lâi.She called me yesterday.

e.g. “I kā pùn-sò the̍h--tshut-khì.He took the trash out.

Notice that “--khí-khì” is often pronounced as “--khí-lì”.

5. Resultative complements

These are suffixes attached a verb to indicate the result of that action. Many of these complements aren’t in the neutral tone even at the end of a clause, but there are a few common ones that are “fixed” neutral tones when they appear at the end of a clause or sentence.

--tio̍h to get, to hit; the action attained a result
--khì away, gone, disappeared
--khui open
--phuà broken, cracked, torn
--sí die; to death

e.g. “I kā si-kue tshiat--khui.He cut open the watermelon.

e.g. “Guá ê liú-á lak--khì.My button fell off.

6. Aspect particles

These are particles that mark grammatical aspects. They basically describe if an action is ongoing, completed, routine, or happened before.

--kuè (the action has been done before)

Fixed” neutral tone when at the end of a sentence.

--leh (in a continuous state; for the moment)

Fixed” neutral tone when at the end of a sentence. Some dialects use “dependent” neutral tone.

--ah (completion or a new situation)

--ah” only appears at the end of a sentence and is a “dependent” neutral tone.

e.g. “Hit tshut tiān-iánn gún khuànn--kuè.We’ve seen that movie before.

e.g. “I tī bîn-tshn̂g-tíng tò--leh.She is lying on the bed.

e.g. “Mn̂g khui1--ah0-1.The door is open.

e.g “I khùn3--ah0-3.She’s already sleeping.

7. Grammatical particle “ê”

This “ê” often becomes a “dependent” neutral tone when you leave off whatever is modified or possessed.

e.g. “Guá ài lim ping ê ka-pi.I like to drink cold coffee.

e.g. “Guá ài lim ping1--ê0-1.I like to drink cold ones (or cold drinks).

8. Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns at the end of clauses tend to be “dependent” neutral tones unless it is emphasized (like for contrast).

--guá me --guán us (excluding you)
--lí you --lán us (including you); you and I
--lín you
--i him/her --in them
--lâng people, someone, them

e.g. “Guá bîn-á-tsài hîng5--lí0-7.I’ll return it to you tomorrow.

9. Exclamatory particles

The particles which indicate tone or emotion appear at the end of a sentence. They are often “fixed” neutral tone at the default mid-to-low pitch. But, there are some exceptions with different fixed pitches, or the pitch of some of the particles sometimes will even depend on the emotion or intention of the speaker.

For example:

--ah0-7Ok! Sure! (Usually a Tone 7, or mid flat)

--ah0-3It’s done. Or “enough, stop.” (Default, or Tone 3, as an aspect particle)

Kiânn--ah0-7Let’s go. (Mid flat showing encouragement, impatience or even threat)

Kín tsáu--ah0-7Hurry! Run! Go! (Mid flat showing encouragement, impatience or even threat)

--ooh0-3?Oh, is it? (Usually a Tone 3, or low pitch, showing introspection, like “Hmm... I didn't know that…”)

Tio̍h--ooh0-7Oh, yeah, you’re right. (Mid flat, or even mid rising, showing agreement towards the listener)

The pitch variation for this final group may be difficult to grasp at the beginning. But with more exposure to everyday conversation, it will become second nature to you.

Here’s a tip that might be helpful. Often when the speaker believes the message will be new for the listener, the tone on the particle will be a higher-pitched “--ah” or “--ooh”, as a way to attract the listener’s attention. By contrast, when the speaker uses a lower-pitched “--ah” or “--ooh”, it’s often signalling that something discussed prior in the conversation has now been brought to the attention of the speaker.


Music Credit: TeknoAXE

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