Pronounce it Like a Pro | Ep03: Tone Changes [Re-broadcast]

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Bite-size Taiwanese | Elementary
Pronounce it Like a Pro | Ep03: Tone Changes [Re-broadcast]

NOTE: This week we're off for the Thanksgiving holiday, so today's episode will be a re-broadcast of Ep03: Tone Changes from our Pronounce it Like a Pro podcast series.  Don't worry, we'll have a brand new Elementary episode next week!

In this episode, we’ve explained the basic Taiwanese tone change (also called “tone sandhi”) rules.

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

Here are some key points.  

Original tone (“citation form”)

Every syllable in Taiwanese has a tone and there are in total 7 basic tones. When a monosyllabic word is said in isolation, it is pronounced in its original tone.

Changed tone (“sandhi form”)

When more syllables and words are combined to form a phrase or a sentence, some of them may alter its tone to a shape similar to another tone.

Taiwanese tone change depends on the sentence structure, not the neighboring tones

If you’ve ever studied Mandarin, you probably know that when there are two consecutive 3rd Tone syllables, the first one changes to a 2nd Tone.

However, in Taiwanese, the tone changes happen less because of the neighboring tones and more because of the sentence structure. Tone changes are closely related to grammatical things like grouping ideas within a sentence, indicating parts-of-speech, showing emphasis, etc.

Phrase-final syllables stay in the original tone

One basic rule is that the syllable at the end of a phrase stays in the original tone. All the syllables before that final syllable should change tone, unless there’s another tone change rule that applies.

So, a string of words could be like:

change-change-change-original, change-change-change-original, change-change-change-original.

[Time/Location/Topic Phrase], [Subject Phrase], [Verb-Object/Predicate Phrase]

You can think of syllables that are in their original tone as resting spots in your sentences and everything before it is grouped together as a whole phrase (or a “tone sandhi group”). If you were to put commas or periods into your sentence, those would also be the natural places to keep the syllable in its original tone.


It could be difficult to remember which tone changes to which tone. In this episode, we’ve tried to simplify the story to help you internalize it. Essentially it can be reduced to three rules as follows: 1) “1-7-3-2-1”, 2) “5 to 7”, and 3) “4 and 8 swap”.

One great way to become familiar with how a certain tone changes is to use reduplicated adjectives. In Taiwanese, reduplicating an adjective has the effect of lessening the intensity. It’s also a nice example because you get exactly the same syllable twice, but one in the changed tone, and one in the original tone.

Below is a summary of the tone change rules with some reduplicated adjectives as examples:

RULE 1  “1-7-3-2-1”: step down, bounce up, and hold

Tone Changes - Rule 1 Step down: Tone 1 changes to Tone 7 (High to Mid), Tone 7 changes to Tone 3 (Mid to Low) -- it’s kind of like going down stairs, stepping lower.

Bounce up: Since Tone 3 (Low) can’t step down even further, it becomes Tone 2 (Falling), which is the most dramatic one that falls down from the top.

Hold: For Tone 2 (Falling), you can think of it this way: you begin at the same starting point high up, but then instead of falling, you really don’t have much time to hold it, so it just becomes a short high pitch Tone 1 and moves on to the next syllable.

Sandhi Tone
Non-Final Position
  Original Tone
Phrase-Final Position
7 Mid 1 High oo7-oo a little dark
kng7-kng a little bright
kiann7-kiann a little scared
3 Low 7 Mid tīng3-tīng a little hard or stiff
tsiūnn3-tsiūnn a little itchy
3- a little blurry, hazy
2 Falling 3 Low tshàu2-tshàu stinky, a little stinky
àm2-àm dark, a little dark
kuài2-kuài strange, a little strange
1 High 2 Falling 1- a little short in length
suí1-suí fairly pretty
nńg1-nńg a little soft

RULE 2   “5 to 7”: Rising to Mid

Tone Changes - Rule 2 Tone 5 (Low Rising) changes to a Tone 7 (Mid), or a Tone 3 (Low) in some Northern dialects. You can just imagine that you don't have enough time to rise and so instead you just give it a brief mid pitch.

Sandhi Tone
Non-Final Position
  Original Tone
Phrase-Final Position
(North) 3 Low 5 Rising âng3/7-âng a little red
tâm3/7-tâm a little wet
puî3/7-puî a little fat, chubby
(General/South) 7 Mid

RULE 3 4 and 8 swap”: Mid Stop to High Stop (or High Falling for -h), High Stop to Mid Stop (or Mid Falling for -h)

Tone Changes - Rule 3 Tone 4 (Mid Stop) and Tone 8 (High Stop) are the two “stop tones”. When tone change occurs, Mid Stop changes to a High Stop (or High Falling for -h), and High Stop changes to a Mid Stop (or Mid Falling for -h).

Sandhi Tone
Non-Final Position
  Original Tone
Phrase-Final Position
8 High Stop 4 Mid Stop sip8-sip a little humid
siap8-siap a little tart
kip8-kip quite in a hurry
2 High Falling 4 Mid -h khuah2-khuah a little wide, quite spacious
kheh2-kheh a little crowded
tshiah2-tshiah reddish-brown, a little charred
4 Mid Stop 8 High Stop ku̍t4-ku̍t slippery, a little slippery
tsha̍k4-tsha̍k prickly, a little prickly
sio̍k4-sio̍k cheap, fairly cheap
3 Mid Falling 8 High -h pe̍h3-pe̍h a little bit white
po̍h3-po̍h a little thin in thickness
e̍h3-e̍h a little narrow

The most important thing for learning Taiwanese tones and tone changes is to listen and imitate as much as possible so that the rules could be internalized. We encourage you to listen to the examples and exercises we provide in this episode.  

Music Credit: TeknoAXE

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