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Tone Conversion

General Information
One of the difficulties of converting Cantonese phonemes to Mandarin phonemes is speaking with the correct tone. A Cantonese speaker may accurately guess the Mandarin sound, but will often miss the tone. Cantonese has 9 tones and 3 base tone levels.  Mandarin has 5 tones (counting the neutral tone) and 1 base tone level.   

While the tone conversion is not intuitive, there are patterns and principles that can generally help in guessing the correct tone.  In order to understand these patterns, it is important to not only have a grasp of Cantonese and Mandarin tones, but also a basic understanding of tone categories in Middle Chinese.

Background Information
Scholars of Chinese have been able to reconstruct with a reasonable degree of certainty how Chinese sounded back anciently, at least as far back as the Tang Dynasty.  Especially helpful in understanding tones were texts on Chinese poetry.  From these sources it was discovered that some ancient Chinese scholars had devised an organization of the tone systems in Chinese.

Basically, there were 8 tone categories.  Four main categories divided appropriately into yin and yang . The following table gives the categories.

Ping
(Even)
Shang
(Rising)
Qu
(Leaving)
Ru
(Entering)
Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Modern Chinese dialects vary significantly in their individual tone systems.  Some dialects have as few as 3 tones, others as many as 14.  Yet while the dialects differ from the Middle Chinese divisions, phonemes of the same ancient tone category tend to be the same tone in modern dialects.

For example, Category 3 ( Shang-Yin ) and Category 5 ( Qu-Yin ) tones become a single tone category in Shanghainese (a Wu dialect of Chinese) while in most other dialects Category 3 and Category 5 tones are distinct tones.  While different dialects handle tones from Middle Chinese differently, most do so in a predictable way.

Mandarin Tones
Mandarin is more of a super-group of dialects than a single language.  For simplicity, Beijing area Mandarin will be assumed when using the term Mandarin throughout the website.  

Mandarin, the basis of putonghua , has a complicated relationship to Middle Chinese.  In this dialect there are 4 standard tones and a neutral 5th tone.  Because of this, many of the Middle Chinese tone categories are merged.  Additionally, both Category 7 ( Ru-Yin ) and Category 8 ( Ru-Yang ) are distributed among the modern Mandarin tones in a complicated manner.

Middle
Chinese

Ping
(Even)
Shang
(Rising)
Qu
(Leaving)
Ru
(Entering)

Subdivision

Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang

Mandarin Tone

1 2 3/4 3/4 4 4 1/2/3/4 2/4

The neutral 5th tone is generally used in sentence ending particles and does not map to a specific tone category in Middle Chinese.

Cantonese Tones
Cantonese maps to Middle Chinese in a fairly predictable manner.  This is due in part to the fact that Cantonese has changed from the older language less than Northern dialects such as Mandarin.  Cantonese has 7 standard tones where the tone is distinguished by a difference in pitch.  It also has 2 additional tones that are distinguished by their difference in length.

Middle
Chinese

Ping
(Even)
Shang
(Rising)
Qu
(Leaving)
Ru
(Entering)

Subdivision

Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang Yin Yang

Cantonese Tone

1 2 3 4 5 6 7/8 9

*In Modern Cantonese, the High Falling tone is disappearing and merging with the  High Level tone.

**These tones differ from other tones of the same pitch due to a glottal stop at the end of the morpheme that shortens the length of the sound.  These sounds generally end with an unaspirated "p", "t", or "k" sound.

Conversion Chart
Cantonese to Mandarin and Mandarin to Cantonese tone conversion can be deduced from information relating to Middle Chinese tone categories.  While there are exceptions to these rules, this does give a student a good principle by which to make educated guesses from one dialect to another.

Cantonese Tone

Mandarin Tone

High Falling

Tone 1/High

Low Falling

Tone 2/Rising

Mid Rising

Tone 3/Dipping or Tone 4/Falling
Low Rising Tone 3/Dipping or Tone 4/Falling

Mid Level

Tone 4/Falling

Low Level

Tone 4/Falling

High Level

Unpredictable

Mid level*

Unpredictable

Low level*

Tone 2/Rising or Tone 4/Falling

*Refers to sounds with unaspirated (p, t, or k) endings.

Mandarin Tone

Cantonese Tone

Tone 1/High High Falling or High Level
Tone 2/Rising High Falling or unaspirated tones*
Tone 3/Dipping High Rising, Mid Rising, or unaspirated tones*
Tone 4/Falling Any accept High Falling and Low Falling

*The unaspirated tones are High Level, Mid Level with (p, t, or k), and Low Level with (p, t, or k.)

Please see the Methodology and Sources section for the source of this information.


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