Can Wu language be described as stereotonic?

Discussions on Wu Chinese.
Posts: 31
Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 10:39 am

Can Wu language be described as stereotonic?

Post by tadpole »


I apologize for all the math jargon I am going to throw in here. But I hope everyone does have some basic familiarity with linear algebra.

For tonal languages like Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, the situation is pretty simple: you learn the tones of separate words, and you put them together, and then you have the tone values of a sentence, except for some possible tone-sandhi adjustments. I would call these languages mono-tonic (one tone per word/syllable).

For Min-Nan language group, this is no longer true. Each word/syllable has two possible tonal values. I call them "running tone" (动态调)and "standing tone" (静态调), this is also the jargon used by some other people. For a language like Min-Nan, I would call it a "stereo-tonic" language.

I have looked at Min-Dong (Foochow, Fuzhou) two-syllable compounds, and it seems to me that the complicated sandhi patterns can be explained as result of (a) a historical stereo-tonic tonal system, plus (b) secondary tone sandhi adjustments. So, I am pretty confident that even Min-Dong can be classified as a stereo-tonic language. To borrow a math analogy, if we view the two-syllable combinations as a matrix, a stereo-tonic language would be a diagonal-dominant matrix, meaning that the rest of the elements can be explained from the diagonal combinations, plus minor adjustments due to tone sandhi. In the case of Min-Nan, all off-diagonal elements can be explained directly with the diagonal elements, with almost no additional off-diagonal tone sandhi adjustments. To use a even more technical jargon, the two-syllable tonal matrix is factorizable, in the sense of a tensor product. So Min-Nan is totally tensor-factorizable, while Min-Dong is quasi-factorizable.

Now let us come to Wu. I know in a language like Shanghainese, the tonal contour often applies to a whole set of words, much like pitch accent. But I also know that this tendency towards pitch-accent style is something recent, that is, Shanghainese tones (or tonal phrases, or tonal phrase elements) have been evolving quite a bit in the last 70 years or so. Other Wu language seems to have a little bit of phrase-wise tonal patterns as well, but probably not to the same degree of modern Shanghainese.

Let us forget about Shanghainese and talk about Wu languages in general. Do you guys think that Wu languages could be explained as stereo-tonic languages as well? What I mean is:

(1) Let us forget about one-syllable citation tones first, and focus on two-syllable, three-syllable or high-syllable terms. Can the tonal values in multi-syllable Wu terms be explained as (a) a basic steretone-pair tone values, plus (b) adjustment/conditioning of the tonal values due to the pitch (level or contour) of surrounding syllables?

(2) Can the one-syllable citation tones be explained as logical follow-ups of the stereotone tone-pair values?

I know to answer these questions is quite an intellectual challenge. But I feel frustrated that no one has ever given a systematic explanation of the nature of tonal features of Wu language at the multisyllable, tonal-phrase level. People just throw in some tone tables, tons of ad-hoc sandhi rules, but no one has ever given a logical rationale, or a logical interpretation, to the multisyllble tone patterns in Wu.

In the case of Min-Nan, you guys are welcome to visit my explanations at: ... ed-default
Though I know the case of Wu is quite different from Min-Nan. Different, but I think in a distant past, the cases of Min-Nan and Wu must be related. I am just trying to figure out a possible path of evolution. The simplicity of Min-Nan (it being factorizable, it being a true stereotonic language) would suggest to me that the tonal-phrase evolution was propated from the South to the North, but I could be wrong: there could be a pitch-accented system in the pre-Sinitic era in the Northern Wu area, which coalesced into a simple stereotone system in the South.


Little Tadpole