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A new view of the third tone in spoken mandarin

January 24th, 2009 · No Comments

A while ago, John Pasden posted on his Sinosplice blog an article about an alternative representation of tones for chinese in connected speech. I’ve been re-thinking about that post, and I find the reversal between “third tone” and “half-third tone” to be very intriguing. We all start learning mandarin with a third tone represented as falling then raising; later on we discover the so-called “exception” to the rule, whereby we often need to forego the raising portion of the sound when the syllable is not pronounced in isolation.

It’s never easy to answer questions like “why this exception?”, but in the case of the third tone, it sounds much easier to answer this question if we reverse the rule and the exception. If we start with the third tone being a flat low tone (the rule), and we introduce the exception of a tone that hints at raising when pronounced in isolation, we are in front of an obvious problem of ambiguity that the language tries to resolve. Hearing chinese requires to be accustomed to tonal variations, but the language doesn’t mandate perfect pitch capabilities. The high pitch of the first tone and the low pitch of the third tone can only be distinguished in the context of a multi-syllable sound envelope where they are relative to each other: first tone at the top of the envelope, third tone at the bottom of it. That is because different speakers in different occasions can choose a different overall pitch level for their voice. If a syllable is pronounced in isolation then, a high versus low flat pitch can’t be fully qualified, and all that can be said is that the tone is flat.

Knowing that a syllable in isolation has a flat tone would be insufficient to determine the word intended with that utterance. In order to disambiguate the tonal component of the sound, either the first or the third tone would then be required to have some “special characteristic” when used in isolation. Since the third tone is at the bottom of the envelope, a hint of “third tone nature” could be given with a raising ending; alternatively, since the first tone is at the top of the envelope, a hint could be given in that case with a falling ending. Although I don’t represent a good experimental subject since I’m very bad at tones in general, I feel I would find it harder to differentiate a first tone “falling exception” from a fourth tone. A third tone “raising exception” seems to be somewhat easier to distinguish from a second tone. Or maybe it’s just that this is what we’re used to, and the language could have chosen either option.

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