Unlike Mandarin or Cantonese, spoken Shanghainese tonality operates as a pitch accent system similar to Korean or Japanese. However this does not mean that syllables in Shanghainese do not have tones. They do exist in the traditional sense, and we’ll address their importance in a moment.
The thing we have to consider when addressing tones is whether we’re going to be looking at them in terms that are simple and easy to understand and thus immediately useful, or in terms that offer a much more comprehensive but less intuitive understanding of the rules that determine how they manifest in the language of native speakers. In this case we’ll do both, starting with a more simple way of thinking about tone in Shanghainese.
There are basically three different contours that you’ll find in Shanghainese phrases. I say basically three because even though you will find some variation, it is essentially minimal and at least for now can be ignored. The contours work across phrases of 2 to 5 syllables and work out to be basically HLL, LHL and LHH with L and low tone and H as high. We can add a middle tone for longer phrases, thus creating HMML, LHML, LHMM. Five-syllable phrases follow the same pattern by duplicating a middle tone. A phrase/word like bicycle 脚踏车 would be an example of LHL. You may be asking how we know that it’s LHL and not HLL. And that’s the right question to ask.
Tones as a speaker of Mandarin or Cantonese would think of them are significant in Shanghainese. When syllables are isolated, you may find them to be as relevant as any other Sinitic language; each character has a tone and it is always that tone when in isolation. 老 is lǎo across the board. But, as a speaker of Mandarin, you know that 老 isn’t always lǎo, specifically when paired with another 3rd tone, such as in the case of 老鼠. In this case tone sandhi rules come into play, making it change from lǎo shǔ to láo shǔ. In Shanghainese, it’s all a lot easier. Instead of thinking of syllable to syllable tone sandhi, instead think of it as phrasal tone sandhi. The tones show up when a syllable or character is isolated, but when it’s in the middle of a sentence, the tone doesn’t matter. That’s because in Shanghainese tones only really matter at the beginning of phrases. In phrase-initial position where they determine the contour of the rest of the phrase. So with our bicycle example, 脚踏车 would be one phrase, and since 脚 is what we’ll call tone #8, we can look at the rules for determining the phrasal contour and know that it’s LHL (or MHL if we want to get specific).
But before we get to those rules, let’s look at the tones in isolation.The following are the five Shanghainese tones, as well as some examples of characters that have the corresponding contours. The following tables are taken from 《上海話大辭典, 辭海板》 by Qian Nairong 錢乃榮 et al, published in 2008.
The tones have been numbered according to the traditional system, despite 3 of these traditional tones having been lost in Shanghainese. That’s why in the previous example of 脚 I said it was tone #8, even though on the list it’s the fifth tone listed.
Now that we know the basic isolated tones, we can look at the rules to determine phrasal contours. The following is a table of phrases containing between 2 and 5 syllables. The number in the first columns corresponds to the tone number of the first syllable in the phrase, which in turn corresponds to the previous table.
Why only 2-5 syllables? Because phrases aren’t sentences. They’re more like conceptual units within a sentence. We could say something like this:
“The other day I went to the store but they’re closed until tomorrow because of the national holiday.”
However this would be quite cumbersome in any Sinitic language and, more importantly, the concepts of the sentence are easily broken down. So instead we could think of this sentance more along the lines of this:
“The other day, I went to the store, but, because of the national holiday, they’re closed until tomorrow.”
I’ve added more commas than we’d normally see in English in order to more clearly distinguish what might qualify as a phrase in our 2-5 syllable rule set.
In keeping with the bicycle example, let’s assume the speaker is talking about a small bicycle. Now we have a 4-syllable phrase beginning with 小, a 阳去 word with a contour of 113. According to the contour rules, we’d expect 小脚踏车 to have a contour of 22+55+33+31 with the stress on the second syllable. WIthout having 小, we’d see 33.55.31.
So far this is fairly straightforward. We’re ignoring the underlined numbers on tones 7 and 8 for now, but we’ll get to them in a little bit. Also It’s important to remember that in this system phrases are not equivalent to sentences. A pause between phrases would initiate a new pitch contour based on the syllable immediately following the phrase. Now that we’ve covered the basic contours, we’ll let’s look at how things can get a little more complicated in the next post.