Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tone sandhi, particularly in names

One of the things that makes Chinese challenging to learn is the tone in which a syllable needs to be spoken in order to convey the correct meaning. There are 5 such tones; 4 primary ones, plus a "neutral" tone, the 5th (I will generally not put any number after a neutral tone Pinyin syllable).

There are also tone sandhi, rules which dictate if a tone needs to change to a different tone because of the tone of the following syllable.

And then, there are the inevitable inconsistencies. Here are some among names used to address people.

Bruce Lee's Chinese name is 李小龍. In Pinyin those individual syllables are Li3 Xiao3 long2, but tone sandhi dictates that two third tones in a row should be pronounced as a 2nd and a 3rd tone, respectively.  Thus, his full name is pronounced Li2 Xiao3long2.

That's the same tone sandhi rule that says that if you hear Xu2 Lao3shi1, you cannot know if that is, e.g., 許老師 (Xu3 Lao3shi1) or 徐老師 (Xu2 Lao3shi1), because both names are pronounced the same way due to tone sandhi effects on the former.

However, it seems to be that if a two-syllable word which follows a last name is already two 3rd tones, then you don't apply this tone sandhi rule.  So for 3-character names, you may have to know the tones of the second and third characters to know how you should pronounce the first.

The individual syllables of Yo-Yo Ma's Chinese name 馬友友 are each 3rd tones: Ma3 You3 you3.  However his "given name" of 友友 in some ways is a unit on its own, and tone sandhi already changes it to be pronounced You2you3.  For his name, that renders moot the idea of tone sandhi for 馬, which is now followed by a 2nd tone, not by a 3rd tone.

This same pattern repeats for President Ma of Taiwan: 馬總統 is Ma3 Zong3tong3, which is pronounced Ma3 Zong2tong3. This would also be the case for any random "Boss Ma", 馬老闆: Ma3 Lao3ban3 would change from tone sandhi to be pronounced Ma3 Lao2ban3. (Woo, I must have forgotten how 闆 is written, that feels a bit odd.)

Tone sandhi applies to the name of Confucius, 孔子, whose individual syllables are Kong3 Zi3, but which is pronounced Kong2 Zi3. Of course, when I first encountered his name that was not obvious to me, since most or all the words I'd encountered with 子 in it did not have it pronounced as zi3, but as zi (neutral tone), e.g., 孩子 (hai2 zi; child),兒子 (er2 zi; son). I consequently mistakenly thought it was pronounced Kong3 zi. Probably 子 is always pronounced Zi3 when it is part of someone's name.

In English the indefinite article a changes to an when followed by a vowel, e.g., an apple. Tone sandhi is vaguely like that, but rather more difficult.  The tone sandhi rule I described above is one of the most striking, but there are other tone sandhi rules, too.

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