Double tone syllables?

If you’re one of those phonetic savants who thinks that the four(ish) tones of standard Mandarin are starting to feel a little dull — mā, má, mǎ, mà, mamahuhu, whatever — maybe you can venture into this part of China, if the PKUCN* rumor is true.

Are there any Chinese dialects with a type of “double tone”**?

我好像在哪本书上看到过某些方言中有双曲调型(即先降后升再降,或先升后降再升)。不知是否真有这种调型?具体是哪种方言。最好能有native speaker的录音

I think I saw in a book that some fangyans have a type of double tone (first drop then rise then drop again, or first rise then drop then rise again). I’m not sure if there’s really this type of tone? Specifically what kind of fangyan. The best thing would be to have a native speaker’s recording.

There’s only one response, but it sounds intriguing:


I think I’ve seen this style of tone in the notation of Dongguan (city in Guangzhou 广州) speech, but in actually listening to it it’s similar to Cantonese.

Anyone heard of such a tonal phenomenon? Man, I wish I had a southern language or three in my head.


*PKUCN is a bulletin board discussion about language. Here are some other Sinoglot posts connected to PKUCN.

**Great monetary award to someone who can do a better job with translating 双曲调型

10 responses to “Double tone syllables?”

  1. Claw says:

    I have not heard of this phenomenon, and a cursory look at doesn’t appear to show that it exists. Unfortunately, not all the links appear to work, such as the link to the Yue dialects, so the Dongguan hypothesis could not be verified.

  2. Claw says:

    Great monetary award to someone who can do a better job with translating 双曲调型

    双曲 is often used in mathematics to translate the term “hyperbolic” (e.g., hyperbola: 双曲线). So you could say that the translation of 双曲调型 is “hyperbolic tone contour”. Unfortunately, “hyperbolic” doesn’t really describe the shape of said tone contour.

  3. Syz says:

    @Claw: Too bad about the broken links. We’ll see if anyone else finds something authoritative.
    Regarding the award: check’s in the mail. Agreeing that hyperbolic wasn’t quite right, I did a few searches with 双曲 and English math terms. I was hoping for something fancy and multidimensionally topologish like cubic hybrid hyperbolic polynomial curves (that’s near the top of the Baidu results). In the end though, it looks like a simple “double curve tone” is probably the right way to put it.

  4. pc says:

    How would the curve’s distribution over the vowel even work? Would it have to be something like /ãː/ (excuse the use of ˜ (tilde) to mean double curve tone – it’s the only thing that looks vaguely like a double curve that I could find)? I would think that /ã/ wouldn’t be enough time to make the full curve possible – or at least distinguishable from a normal rising-falling/falling-rising.

    Also, may I be so bold as to suggest the term “sinusoidal tone?”

  5. Syz says:

    @pc: you may have to have your legal counsel get together with Claw’s, cuz “sinusoidal” definitely deserves a chunk of that award payment 😀

    I found myself wondering about the actual sound too. Maybe something almost like an exaggerated operatic vibrato? Aw, maybe it doesn’t really exist anyway…

  6. Katie says:

    Having neglected to actually bring any of my linguistics book to China with me, I don’t have any good sources for looking this up. (So far internet searches aren’t yielding much. Neither is my slowly fading memory.) I believe that you get things like this in intonation in Korean, and the vowels are stretched out significantly to accommodate it. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember that it sounds pretty funky. pc is right that it’s a lot to squeeze onto one syllable. My guess is that, if it does exist, it’s either tone+intonation combination or it’s actually a word tone pattern (and that part of it gets deleted in a monosyllabic word). If I continue to be completely unmotivated to do things I should be doing, I could probably dig up some information about how long a vowel would have to be to accommodate such a tone.

    If we could actually track down such a tone, then we could figure out whether a cubic polynomial curve or a sinusoidal curve would be a better model for it. That might be too geeky even for me–but it’s also publishably geeky, so let it be stated for the record that I want a part in it :)

  7. Robert Delfs says:

    Bend it like 梅兰芳 (Mei Lanfang) …

    To a non-specialist, syllables with multiple tones seem to occur often in performances of Beijing opera (京剧) and other regional dramatic performance traditions, if they are not indeed the norm. This is sufficient to establishes that these pronunciations can be appropriate utterances, even if they are only used in restrictive and/or formal contexts – which may not always have been the case.

    I also suspect the relationship and role of tones as they are used in normal speech in Chinese languages/dialects with respect to the language of Beijing, Cantonese operas and other dramatic traditions has already been studied fairly extensively. Anyone with access to papers from the CHINOPERL (Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature) meetings going back to the 1970s could probably find some relevant information. E.g.,

    Bell Yung – “The Role of Speech Tone in the Creative Process of the Cantonese Opera” (1973)
    Lindy Li Mark – “Tone and Tune in Kunqu (1983)

    Robert Delfs

  8. ze says:

    I happen to be attending classes right now with one of China’s most respected phonologists, Prof. Shi Feng (石锋) from Nankai University. I asked him about “双曲调型“ (the term didn’t seem to resonate until I offered explanation–which could be a reflection of my poor pronunciation rather than the lack of such a term) and he said he had encountered such a tone (first rising, then falling, then rising again) in Wujiang County (吴江县) near Suzhou, a local variety of Wu dialect. He noted a couple of interesting things. 1) Whenever a language has such a “double-curve tone”, it will only have one, because it would be too difficult for hearers to differentiate multiple double-curve tones. 2) Such a tone tends to vary quite widely from speaker to speaker. Whereas we can assume with some accuracy that Mandarin tones are consistent (e.g. the full third tone consistently is 213 or 212), a double-curve tone may be 2535 from one speaker, 1314 from another, and so on. Prof. Shi said he’ll try to get some more specific details for me–once upon a time he had recordings of this tone. Maybe I can also remember to ask what a more accurate term is for such tones, or if 双曲调型 is good enough.

  9. ze says:


  10. Syz says:

    @Robert Delfs: the peking opera slant is interesting, but are you saying you’d consider that kind of performance a “formal context”? Not sure I quite follow. But it’s certainly a restricted context, so running with that, isn’t the next question whether, in peking opera, there are double curve tones that get used consistent and distinguish words (in a phonemic sense) from similar words with different tones? I know zero about PO, but if you can shed some light that would be great.

    @ze: this is HUGE! Don’t let your prof get away — see if he can dig up a reference or a recording. That would be astronomically far out. And then we could set @katie loose on the duration analysis and curve fitting 😀

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