Ep09: Tone Change Rules - Part 2

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Bite-size Taiwanese | Pronounce it like a Pro
Ep09: Tone Change Rules - Part 2


In this episode, we’ve talked about “when” exactly to change tones in a Taiwanese phrase or sentence. In particular, this episode: Tone Change Rules - Part 2 is about the tone change in Pronouns, Verbs & Verb Complements.

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

If you missed our last episode (Ep 08), which is Part 1 of this discussion, make sure to listen to it first.


A pronoun can function as a noun phrase and it refers to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse. “Personal pronouns” are like “guá” (I), “” (you) and “i” (he/she/it), and they often behave a little differently than nouns when it comes to tone change.

1. Personal pronouns are “light” syllables and tend to change tone.

Nouns or noun phrases often play the role of the subject or object in a sentence. As we’ve mentioned in the previous episode, the final syllable of the subject or object is always in the original tone.

However, pronouns are unlike general nouns. They are “light” in sound and meaning, and tend to change tone. In fact, pronouns are rarely in their original tone unless they are emphasized.

Compare the noun “a-” (mom), and the pronoun “guá” (I/me) in these sentences:

(the “#” sign marks the break of the tone change group)

A7-bú # teh2-1 khuànn2 tsheh. “Mom is reading a book.”

Guá1 teh2-1 khuànn2 tsheh. “I’m reading a book.”

A7-pah # tshuā3-1 a7-bú # khì. “Dad took mom there.”

A7-pah # tshuā3-1 guá1 khì. “Dad took me there.”

2. At the end of a sentence, personal pronouns are usually placed in the “neutral tone”.

Compare these two sentences:

A7-pah # lâi7 khuànn2 a7-bú. “Dad came to see mom.”

A7-pah # lâi7 khuànn #--guá0. “Dad came to see me.”

In the first sentence “” is at the end of a sentence, so it’s in the original tone. The verb “khuànn” (to see) has to change tone because it’s followed by the object “a7-” (mom).

In the second sentence, the pronoun “--guá0”, is put in the “neutral tone” (listen to Ep05, where we talk about the neutral tone in Taiwanese). Since the pronoun is like a light, little extra word that doesn’t count as a real noun and can’t be marked as the final word, the verb “khuànn” becomes the “final syllable” of the sentence, and is the one kept in its original tone.

3. When emphasized, personal pronouns follow the regular tone change rule just like nouns.

In some situations, you might also hear the personal pronouns in the original tone.

For example:

A7-pah # lâi7 khuànn2 “guá”. “Dad came to see ME.”

Here, the emphasis is on the pronoun “guá”, which stresses that it’s “me” as opposed to “you” or other people. As the final syllable of the sentence, “guá” now keeps its original tone like any other nouns. The verb “khuànn” follows the regular tone change rule since it’s mid-phrase followed by an object.

4. Exceptions: “i” and “in”

In Modern spoken Taiwanese, the pronoun “i” (he/him, she/her, it) and “in” (they/them) are always in their changed tones. Even if they’re emphasized or said in isolation, they are always in the 7th Tone, as if they never have an original tone.

For instance, you can say:

Guá # 3 guá #, i73 i7. “I am I, he is he.”

The implication of this sentence is: “We are different, don’t compare me to him.” Here both pronouns are emphasized, but “i7” is still in its changed tone.


Verbs follow the regular tone change rule: the final syllable of a whole phrase keeps its original tone.

1. One-syllable verbs

A one-syllable verb on its own or at the end of a sentence is in the original tone. It has to change tone when it’s mid-phrase, i.e. followed by an object.

2. Verbs with more syllables

Verbs with two or more syllables are just like what we’ve learned from multi-syllable nouns: it’s only the final syllable that is in the original tone, e.g. tsíng1-, “to tidy up, to sort out”.

If the verb is followed by a noun as the object, the final syllable of the verb must change since it’s now mid-phrase and no longer final.

For example:

Tsíng1-lí1 pâng7-king “to tidy up a room”


Verbs themselves follow the default case but the “verb complements” can sometimes behave differently.

You can think of verb complements as extensions to verbs that help to give you more information about the action. While Taiwanese verbs don’t inflect or have conjugations like many other languages, they do have these verb complements that can accomplish similar goals like indicating that an action is completed or that it achieved a particular result.

According to how they behave with tone changes, there are two main categories: 1) those that follow the default case, and 2) those that are put in the “neutral tone” at the end of a sentence.

1. Default case: resultative and achievement complements

Most resultative complements and achievement complements follow the default tone change rules.

Resultative complements describe an outcome from performing the action, like tsia̍h3- (to eat until full), or lòng2-pháinn (to hit and break).

E.g. End of sentence

I73 guá1 ê7 tiān3-náu # lòng2-pháinn. “He broke my computer.”

E.g. Mid-phrase, followed by an object:

Gún1 ti7-ti # lòng2-pháinn1 guá1 ê7 tiān3-náu. “My little brother broke my computer.”

Achievement complements are like ū, which shows that the action of the verb was successful, or “” unsuccessful, e.g. thiann7 ū (to hear it), tshuē3 ū (to find it), thiann7 (to not hear it), tshuē3 (to not find it).

E.g. End of sentence

Tshan7-thiann # in7 kám1 tshuē3 ū? “Did they find the restaurant?”

(Lit: The restaurant, did they find (it)?)

E.g. Mid-phrase, followed by an object

In7 kám1 tshuē3 ū3 mi̍h # thang7 tsia̍h? “Did they find anything to eat?”


Only a few resultative complements don’t follow the default tone change rule. The exceptions include: “verb + --sí0” (to die/death), “verb + --khui0” (open), “verb + --phuà0” (break apart or worn-out). When they appear at the end of a sentence, they are put in neutral tone and fall into our second category.

2. Neutral tone: directional complements & “--tio̍h”

“Directional complements” and the achievement complement “tio̍h” differ from the default cases in that they are put in the neutral tone when at the end of a verb phrase or sentence.

Directional complements indicate direction of movement. These include lâi (come, towards the speaker), khì (go, away from the speaker), tshut (out, out of), ji̍p/li̍p (in, into), khí (up), lo̍h (down), kuè/kè (past, across). They can also be combined, like the̍h--tshut0-lâi0 (to take out), --lo̍h0-khì0 (to fall over, to fall down), or kiânn--kuè0-khì0 (to walk past, to walk by).

You can think of the verb is where the emphasis is, and the directional complement is just a light syllable or additional information attached to it. But when the directional complement is NOT at the end of the sentence, it can’t become a neutral tone, and everything just follows the default tone change rule.

Compare these two sentences:

I73 siòng2-phìnn # the̍h #--tshut0-lâi0. “She took out the photo.”

I73 siòng2-phìnn # the̍h3-tshut8-lâi7 khuànn. “She took out the photo to look at it”.

The complement “tio̍h” shows that the action was performed correctly or successfully. It can also change the meaning of a verb from an activity (or “durative”) to an achievement (or “telic”). For example, tshuē--tio̍h (to look for → found), khuànn--tio̍h (to look → saw it), phīnn--tio̍h (to smell → smelled it).

When “verb + tio̍h” is at the end of a sentence, it is put in a neutral tone.

E.g. End of sentence

I7 ê7 phang7-tsuí #, in7 lóng1 ū3 phīnn #--tio̍h0. “They all smelled her perfume”

(Lit: Her perfume, they’ve all smelled.)

E.g. Mid-phrase

In7 phīnn3-tio̍h3 tshàu2-tāu3-hū # ê7 bī. “They smelled stinky tofu.”

(Lit: They smelled the smell of stinky tofu.)


Exercise 1 - Pronoun “in

Ha̍k4-sing # teh2-1 tshit8-thô. Students are having fun.
In7 teh2-1 tshit8-thô. They are having fun.
Lāu3-su # kiò2 ha̍k4-sing # lâi. The teacher asks the students to come here.
Lāu3-su # kiò2 in7 lâi. The teacher asks them to come here.
Lāu3-su # khì2-13 ha̍k4-sing. The teacher goes to scold the students.
Lāu3-su # khì2-1 mē # --in0. The teacher goes to scold them.

Exercise 2 - Pronouns

Hit8 ê7 lâng # 31-uī? Where is that person?
131-uī? Where are you?
Thâu7-ke # 73 hit8 ê7 lâng # kóng. The boss didn’t tell that person.
Thâu7-ke # 731 kóng. The boss didn’t tell you.
Guá13 bat8 hit8 ê7 lâng. I don’t know that person.
Guá13 bat #--lí0. I don’t know you.
Guá # 3 guá #, i7i7. I am I, he is he.

Exercise 3 - Verbs & verb complements

1 kám1 ū3 khuànn2-tio̍h3 in7 lāu3-bú? Did you see her mom?
Ū, guá1 ū3 khuànn #--tio̍h0. Yes, I did.
1 kám1 ū31-tio̍h3 in7 lāu3-bú? Did you meet/run into her mom?
Ū, guá1 ū3 tú #--tio̍h0. Yes, I did.
1 kám1 ū3 tshuē3-tio̍h3 i7 ê7 káu? Did you find his dog?
Ū, guá1 ū3 tshuē #--tio̍h0. Yes, I did.
1 kám1 ū3 thiann7-tio̍h3 guá1 ê7 siann? Did you hear my voice?
Ū, guá1 ū3 thiann #--tio̍h0. Yes, I did.
1 kám1 ū3 tsiap8-tio̍h3 guá1 ê7 phue? Did you receive my letter?
Ū, guá1 ū3 tsiap #--tio̍h0. Yes, I did.

Music Credit: TeknoAXE

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