Explaining chain-shift tone sandhi in Min Nan Chinese

In my previous post on the Teochew dialect, I noted that Teochew has a complex system of tone sandhi. The last syllable of a word keeps its citation (base) form, while all preceding syllables undergo sandhi. For example:

gu5 (cow) -> gu1 nek5 (cow-meat = beef)

seng52 (play) -> seng35 iu3 hi1 (play a game)

The sandhi system is quite regular — for instance, if a word’s base tone is 52 (falling tone), then its sandhi tone will be 35 (rising tone), across many words:

toin52 (see) -> toin35 dze3 (see-book = read)

mang52 (mosquito) -> mang35 iu5 (mosquito-oil)

We can represent this relationship as an edge in a directed graph 52 -> 35. Similarly, words with base tone 5 have sandhi tone 1, so we have an edge 5 -> 1. In Teochew, the sandhi graph of the six non-checked tones looks like this:


Above: Teochew tone sandhi, Jieyang dialect, adapted from Xu (2007). For simplicity, we ignore checked tones (ending in -p, -t, -k), which have different sandhi patterns.

This type of pattern is not unique to Teochew, but exists in many dialects of Min Nan. Other dialects have different tones but a similar system. It’s called right-dominant chain-shift, because the rightmost syllable of a word keeps its base tone. It’s also called a “tone circle” when the graph has a cycle. Most notably, the sandhi pattern where A -> B, and B -> C, yet A !-> C is quite rare cross-linguistically, and does not occur in any Chinese dialect other than in the Min family.

Is there any explanation for this unusual tone sandhi system? In this blog post, I give an overview of some attempts at an explanation from theoretical phonology and historical linguistics.

Xiamen tone circle and Optimality Theory

The Xiamen / Amoy dialect is perhaps the most studied variety of Min Nan. Its sandhi system looks like this:


Barrie (2006) and Thomas (2008) attempt to explain this system with Optimality Theory (OT). In modern theoretical phonology, OT is a framework that describes how the underlying phonemes are mapped to the output phonemes, not using rules, but rather with a set of constraints. The constraints dictate what kinds of patterns that are considered “bad” in the language, but some violations are worse than others, so the constraints are ranked in a hierarchy. Then, the output is the solution that is “least bad” according to the ranking.

To explain the Xiamen tone circle sandhi, Thomas begins by introducing the following OT constraints:

  • *RISE: incur a penalty for every sandhi tone that has a rising contour.
  • *MERGE: incur a penalty when two citation tones are mapped to the same sandhi tone.
  • DIFFER: incur penalty when a base tone is mapped to itself as a sandhi tone.

Without any constraints, there are 5^5 = 3125 possible sandhi systems in a 5-tone language. With these constraints, most of the hypothetical systems are eliminated — for example, the null system (where every tone is mapped to itself) incurs 5 violations of the DIFFER constraint.

These 3 rules aren’t quite enough to fully explain the Xiamen tone system: there are still 84 hypothetical systems that are equally good as the actual system. With the aid of a Perl script, Thomas then introduces more rules until only one system (the actual observed one) emerges as the best under the constraints.

Problems with the OT explanation

There are several reasons why I didn’t find this explanation very satisfying. First, it’s not falsifiable: if your constraints don’t generate the right result, you can keep adding more and more constraints, and tweak the ranking, until they produce the result you want.

Second, the constraints are very arbitrary and lack any cognitive-linguistic motivation. You can explain the *MERGE constraint as trying to preserve contrasts, which makes sense from an information theory point of view, but what about DIFFER? It’s unclear why base tones shouldn’t be mapped to the same sandhi tone, especially since many languages (like Cantonese) manage fine with no sandhi at all.

Even considering Teochew, which is more closely related to the Xiamen dialect, we see that all three constraints are violated. I’m not aware of any analysis of Teochew sandhi using OT, and it would be interesting to see, but surely it would have a very different set of constraints from the Xiamen system.

Nevertheless, OT has been an extremely successful framework in modern phonology. In some cases, OT can describe a pattern very cleanly, where you’d need very complicated rules to describe them. In that case, the set of OT constraints would be a good explanation for the pattern.

Also, if the same constraint shows up in a lot of languages, then that increases its credibility that it’s a true cross-language tendency, rather than a just a made-up rule to explain the data. For example, if the *RISE constraint shows up in OT grammars for many languages, then you could claim that there’s a general tendency for languages to prefer falling tones over rising tones.

Evidence from Middle Chinese

Chen (2000) gives a different perspective. Essentially, he claims that it’s impossible to make sense of the data in any particular modern-day dialect. Instead, we should compare multiple dialects together in the context of historical sound changes.

The evidence he gives is from the Zhangzhou dialect, located about 40km inland from Xiamen. The Zhangzhou dialect has a similar tone circle as Xiamen, but with different values!


It’s not obvious how the two systems are related, until you consider the mapping to Middle Chinese tone categories:


The roman numerals I, II, III denote tones of Middle Chinese, spoken during ~600AD. Middle Chinese had four tones, but none of the present day Chinese dialects retain this system, after centuries of tone splits and merges. In many dialects, a Middle Chinese tone splits into two tones depending on whether the initial is voiced or voiceless. When comparing tones from different dialects, it’s often useful to refer to historical tone categories like “IIIa”, which roughly means “syllables that were tone III in Middle Chinese and the initial consonant is voiceless”.

It’s unlikely that both Xiamen and Zhangzhou coincidentally developed sandhi patterns that map to the same Middle Chinese tone categories. It’s far more likely that the tone circle developed in a common ancestral language, then their phonetic values diverged afterwards in the respective present-day dialects.

That still leaves open the question of: how exactly did the tone circle develop in the first place? It’s likely that we’ll never know for sure: the details are lost to time, and the processes driving historical tone change are not very well understood.

In summary, theoretical phonology and historical linguistics offer complementary insights that explain the chain-shift sandhi patterns in Min Nan languages. Optimality Theory proposes tendencies for languages to prefer certain structures over others. This partially explains the pattern; a lot of it is simply due to historical accident.


  1. Barrie, Michael. “Tone circles and contrast preservation.” Linguistic Inquiry 37.1 (2006): 131-141.
  2. Chen, Matthew Y. Tone sandhi: Patterns across Chinese dialects. Vol. 92. Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pages 38-49.
  3. Thomas, Guillaume. “An analysis of Xiamen tone circle.” Proceedings of the 27th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. Cascadilla Proceedings Project, Somerville, MA. 2008.
  4. Xu, Hui Ling. “Aspect of Chaozhou grammar: a synchronic description of the Jieyang variety.” (2007).

Learning the Teochew (Chaozhou) Dialect

Lately I’ve been learning my girlfriend’s dialect of Chinese, called the Teochew dialect.  Teochew is spoken in the eastern part of the Guangdong province by about 15 million people, including the cities of Chaozhou, Shantou, and Jieyang. It is part of the Min Nan (闽南) branch of Chinese languages.


Above: Map of major dialect groups of Chinese, with Teochew circled. Teochew is part of the Min branch of Chinese. Source: Wikipedia.

Although the different varieties of Chinese are usually refer to as “dialects”, linguists consider them different languages as they are not mutually intelligible. Teochew is not intelligible to either Mandarin or Cantonese speakers. Teochew and Mandarin diverged about 2000 years ago, so today they are about as similar as French is to Portuguese. Interestingly, linguists claim that Teochew is one of the most conservative Chinese dialects, preserving many archaic words and features from Old Chinese.

Above: Sample of Teochew speech from entrepreneur Li Ka-shing.

Since I like learning languages, naturally I started learning my girlfriend’s native tongue soon after we started dating. It helped that I spoke Mandarin, but Teochew is not close enough to simply pick up by osmosis, it still requires deliberate study. Compared to other languages I’ve learned, Teochew is challenging because very few people try to learn it as a foreign language, thus there are few language-learning resources for it.

Writing System

The first hurdle is that Teochew is primarily spoken, not written, and does not have a standard writing system. This is the case with most Chinese dialects. Almost all Teochews are bilingual in Standard Chinese, which they are taught in school to read and write.

Sometimes people try to write Teochew using Chinese characters by finding the equivalent Standard Chinese cognates, but there are many dialectal words which don’t have any Mandarin equivalent. In these cases, you can invent new characters or substitute similar sounding characters, but there’s no standard way of doing this.

Still, I needed a way to write Teochew, to take notes on new vocabulary and grammar. At first, I used IPA, but as I became more familiar with the language, I devised my own romanization system that captured the sound differences.

Cognates with Mandarin

Note (Jul 2020): People in the comments have pointed out that some of these examples are incorrect. I’ll keep this section the way it is because I think the high-level point still stands, but these are not great examples.

Knowing Mandarin was very helpful for learning Teochew, since there are lots of cognates. Some cognates are obviously recognizable:

  • Teochew: kai shim, happy. Cognate to Mandarin: kai xin, 开心.
  • Teochew: ing ui, because. Cognate to Mandarin: ying wei, 因为

Some words have cognates in Mandarin, but mean something slightly different, or aren’t commonly used:

  • Teochew: ou, black. Cognate to Mandarin: wu, 乌 (dark). The usual Mandarin word is hei, 黑 (black).
  • Teochew: dze: book. Cognate to Mandarin: ce, 册 (booklet). The usual Mandarin word is shu, 书 (book).

Sometimes, a word has a cognate in Mandarin, but sound quite different due to centuries of sound change:

  • Teochew: hak hau, school. Cognate to Mandarin: xue xiao, 学校.
  • Teochew: de, pig. Cognate to Mandarin: zhu, 猪.
  • Teochew: dung: center. Cognate to Mandarin: zhong, 中.

In the last two examples, we see a fairly common sound change, where a dental stop initial (d- and t-) in Teochew corresponds to an affricate (zh- or ch-) in Mandarin. It’s not usually enough to guess the word, but serves as a useful memory aid.

Finally, a lot of dialectal Teochew words (I’d estimate about 30%) don’t have any recognizable cognate in Mandarin. Examples:

  • da bo: man
  • no gya: child
  • ge lai: home

Grammatical Differences

Generally, I found Teochew grammar to be fairly similar to Mandarin, with only minor differences. Most grammatical constructions can transfer cognate by cognate and still make sense in the other language.

One significant difference in Teochew is the many fused negation markers. Here, a syllable starts with the initial b- or m- joined with a final to negate something. Some examples:

  • bo: not have
  • boi: will not
  • bue: not yet
  • mm: not
  • mai: not want
  • ming: not have to

Phonology and Tone Sandhi

The sound structure of Teochew is not too different from Mandarin, and I didn’t find it difficult to pronounce. The biggest difference is that syllables may end with a stop: -t, -k, -p, and -m, whereas Mandarin syllables can only end with a vowel or nasal. The characteristic of a Teochew accent in Mandarin is replacing /f/ with /h/, and indeed there is no /f/ sound in Teochew.

The hardest part of learning Teochew for me were the tones. Teochew has either six or eight tones depending on how you count them, which isn’t difficult to produce in isolation. However, Teochew has a complex system of tone sandhi rules, where the tone of each syllable changes depending on the tone of the following syllable. Mandarin has tone sandhi to some extent (for example, the third tone sandhi rule where nǐ + hǎo is pronounced níhǎo rather than nǐhǎo). But Teochew takes this to a whole new level, where nearly every syllable undergoes contextual tone change.

Some examples (the numbers are Chao tone numerals, with 1 meaning lowest and 5 meaning highest tone):

  • gu5: cow
  • gu1 nek5: beef

Another example, where a falling tone changes to a rising tone:

  • seng52: to play
  • seng35 iu3 hi1: to play a game

There are tables of tone sandhi rules describing in detail how each tone gets converted to what other tone, but this process is not entirely regular and there are exceptions. As a result, I frequently get the tone wrong by mistake.

Update: In this blog post, I explore Teochew tone sandhi in more detail.

Resources for Learning Teochew

Teochew is seldom studied as a foreign language, so there aren’t many language learning resources for it. Even dictionaries are hard to find. One helpful dictionary is Wiktionary, which has the Teochew pronunciation for most Chinese characters.

Also helpful were formal linguistic grammars:

  1. Xu, Huiling. “Aspects of Chaoshan grammar: A synchronic description of the Jieyang dialect.” Monograph Series Journal of Chinese Linguistics 22 (2007).
  2. Yeo, Pamela Yu Hui. “A sketch grammar of Singapore Teochew.” (2011).

The first is a massively detailed, 300-page description of Teochew grammar, while the second is a shorter grammar sketch on a similar variety spoken in Singapore. They require some linguistics background to read. Of course, the best resource is my girlfriend, a native speaker of Teochew.

Visiting the Chaoshan Region

After practicing my Teochew for a few months with my girlfriend, we paid a visit to her hometown and relatives in the Chaoshan region. More specifically, Raoping County located on the border between Guangdong and Fujian provinces.


Left: Chaoshan railway station, China. Right: Me learning the Gongfu tea ceremony, an essential aspect of Teochew culture.

Teochew people are traditional and family oriented, very much unlike the individualistic Western values that I’m used to. In Raoping and Guangzhou, we attended large family gatherings in the afternoon, chatting and gossiping while drinking tea. Although they are still Han Chinese, the Teochew consider themselves a distinct subgroup within Chinese, with their unique culture and language. The Teochew are especially proud of their language, which they consider to be extremely hard for outsiders to learn. Essentially, speaking Teochew is what separates “ga gi nang” (roughly translated as “our people”) from the countless other Chinese.

My Teochew is not great. Sometimes I struggle to get the tones right and make myself understood. But at a large family gathering, a relative asked me why I was learning Teochew, and I was able to reply, albeit with a Mandarin accent: “I want to learn Teochew so that I can be part of your family”.


Above: Me, Elaine, and her grandfather, on a quiet early morning excursion to visit the sea. Raoping County, Guangdong Province, China.

Thanks to my girlfriend Elaine Ye for helping me write this post. Elaine is fluent in Teochew, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.