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 輕聲”, 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.
- “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.
- “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--ê0-1” the black one
“khui1--ah0-1” it’s open now
|Tone 7 (mid flat)||-- mid Tone 0||“tuā7--ê0-7” the big one
“tīnn7--ah0-7” it’s full now
|Tone 5 (low rising)||-- mid Tone 0||“âng5--ê0-7” the red one
“lâi5--ah0-7” he’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.
“lim nn̄g pue” drink 2 glasses (the quantity of 2 glasses of some liquid)
“lim--nn̄g-pue” just 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.
“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
“bô khì” (free combination) didn’t go
“bô--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 sí” (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.
Nouns with neutral tones often have “fixed” neutral tones.
surname + “--sian-sinn” (Mr.) e.g. “Tân--sian-sinn” Mr. Tan
surname + “--ka” (family) e.g. “Ông--ka” the Ong family, the Ongs
“--gue̍h/ge̍h” (month) e.g. “Sann--gue̍h” March
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--bô” Does she have a car?
“--buē” (have… yet?) e.g. “Tsia̍h-pá--buē” Have 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|
|khí (up)||--khí-lâi||--khí-lì (--khí-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|
|--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|
|--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.
“Hó--ah0-7” Ok! Sure! (Usually a Tone 7, or mid flat)
“Hó--ah0-3” It’s done. Or “enough, stop.” (Default, or Tone 3, as an aspect particle)
“Kiânn--ah0-7” Let’s go. (Mid flat showing encouragement, impatience or even threat)
“Kín tsáu--ah0-7” Hurry! Run! Go! (Mid flat showing encouragement, impatience or even threat)
“Sī--ooh0-3?” Oh, is it? (Usually a Tone 3, or low pitch, showing introspection, like “Hmm... I didn't know that…”)
“Tio̍h--ooh0-7” Oh, 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
One reply on “ Ep05: The Neutral Tone ”
It’s not only got pronunciation explanations but grammar! how great