From the Sinoglot mailbag:

Hello !
My name is Minkyu and I’m from Korea.
I am enjoying your blog a lot. I am currently learning Chinese as my fourth language and I am very interested in linguistic view on Chinese language.

I was randomly looking up for a Kana (Japanese phonogram) transcription chart of Mandarin Chinese by their pinyin (Romanization of Mandarin) [Link] and I came up with this question.

But here, you can see (I suppose you can read Japanese at least its Kanji (Hanzi) parts) that “you, miu, diu, niu, liu” are transcribed into “イウ/iu/, ミウ/miu/, ティウ/tiu/, ニウ/niu/, リウ/riu/” when it has either First tone (high) or Second tone(rising), and transcribed into “ヨウ/you/, ミョウ/myou/, テョウ/tyou/, ニョウ/nyou/, リョウ/ryou/” when it has either Third tone (dipping) and Fourth tone (falling).

I knew that the vowel part “iou” can be pronounced either way, [jow] or [jiw]–or even their middle– but I was never heard that this variation is according to their tones.

Could you tell me how “iou” varies in modern Madarin phonology please? Or is this difference just based on hearing cognition of Japanese-speakers?

And could you also tell me why “jiu, qiu, xiu” have no difference in their transcription and are transcribed into “チウ/chiu/, チウ/chiu/, シウ/shiu/” solely?

Thank you.

Best Regards,
Minkyu Kim

The Japanese Wikipedia page to which Minkyu directs us has two tables – the upper one for first and second tones and the lower one for third and fourth tones. Move over to the right to see the entries for pinyin iou.

Would any of our readers like to offer an explanation?

Tone vs other phonemes in Mandarin punning

To native Mandarin speakers (NSs), how salient is tone vs other phonemic features?

The question comes up a lot for me, a non-native speaker (NNS), just because tone is an order of magnitude less salient. That is, if I miss any feature of a word, it’s almost sure to be the tone before, say, whether the beginning sound was a /ch/ or /s/.

But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t apply to NSs. An incident I heard about had the NNS mispronouncing shòu as shǒu when attempting to say “她很瘦” (she’s so thin). What came out, then, was “tā hěn shǒu” which was unhappily understood as “tā hěn chǒu” (她很丑 = she’s so ugly) by the NS.

Still, I have some vague intuition that NSs are more flexible on tone than on other features. In that vein, this quote in China Media Project caught my eye the other day. It’s referring to how an online commenter sneaks in a reference to the Nobel peace prize by substituting characters:

the user replaced the characters for “peace” + “prize”, or hépíng jiǎng (和平奖), with the same-sounding characters “crane” + “level” + “palm”, or hè píng zhǎng (鹤平掌). [tone marks added to original Pinyin]

So here we’ve got a tone switch with matching phonemes, hé vs hè, but we’ve also got a phoneme switch with matching tone: jiǎng vs zhǎng. This is new for me. Of the online puns I can think of off the top of my head, all rely on matching phonemes with mixed-up tones, e.g. cǎo ní mǎ. But new-to-me doesn’t mean much. Anyone else have examples of phoneme-switching-tone-preserving puns?

Are native speakers aware of tone sandhi?

Just after I’d been thinking about the tone changes of yī (hanzi: 一) the other day, I happened to get momentarily puzzled over a word I say practically every day. Seeing this:


I asked my friend, a native speaker of Chinese:

“Is it dānyuán or dānyuán?”

“Huh? It’s dānyuán of course. Why would it be ?”

In this case, as I should have known, it’s pronounced because it’s functioning as a number, something like “Unit #1.”

But after further discussion as followup to her “Why would it be ?” comment, it became clear that she wasn’t aware that yī could change tones at all. It took only a few examples to demonstrate the phenomenon, but the phenomenon up until that point had been completely subconscious.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Native speakers of every language do similar things. Still, sandhi seem pretty salient to me… I’d like to know if this is an isolated case.