I stayed in Taiwan for a few months and made friends with Tiántián (恬恬, a second tone character repeated twice). However, I heard everyone say her name as Tiǎntián (third tone followed by second tone).

Was I hearing wrong the whole time? (I hope not.) Is there such a tone change from 2-2 to 3-2 for proper names? What about common 2nd-tone letters repeated twice?

I understand there's a variety of rules for 3rd tone combinations, such as 3 33 and 33 3, or 333, but never heard of a 2nd-tone, 2nd-tone tone change.

2 Answers 2


There is a 2nd tone-2nd tone change in spoken Chinese, but it's different from what you described. Y.R. Chao's fantastic A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (unfortunately long out of print in English, though an abridged version is available in Chinese) describes a phenomenon where 2nd-tone words in the middle of trisyllabic compounds change to 1st tone. San Duanmu's The Phonology of Standard Chinese confirms this fact, but the author notes, "My own sense is that T2 Sandhi is not a productive or required rule. Instead, it is likely to be conditioned by the speed of speech (Shih 2005) and frequency of the expression."

Here are the details of this sound change, as presented in Duanwu's book:

In a trisyllabic expression, if (a) the first syllable is T1 or T2, (b) the middle syllable is T2, and (c) the final syllable is not weak, then the middle T2 can change to T1 in conversational speed.

(T1 and T2 stand for 1st and 2nd tone.)

I admit that I have never consciously "used" this rule myself while speaking Chinese, but, when I'm paying close attention, I do notice it arising in my speech and in the speech of others.

(There's no evidence in either of these books for the 2nd tone to 3rd tone change that you mentioned, so I assume that it's a unique nickname rather than a general rule.)

EDIT: I did a bit more reading in Duanwu, and was surprised to find that in Taiwan Chinese he notes widespread Tone 2 to Tone 3 shifts, but only on lexical boundaries. That still doesn't explain your situation, however.

  • Thanks for the detailed response. I'm surprised the T2 to T1 sandhi exists. I was thinking about Tiantian and the tone change could reflect endearment too. I should have asked while I was there :( Off topic, but I really like Chao's Gwoyeu Romatzyh. I think it's a shame it never caught on. Too advanced, maybe? Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 22:23
  • @Heitor Chang: I'm a big fan of GR too. (In fact, it was the first romanization system I learned. I didn't learn pinyin until the end of my first year in Chinese study.) The only English editions of A Grammar of Spoken Chinese are written with GR romanization throughout -- one reason, perhaps, why it hasn't yet been reprinted.
    – Alf
    Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 22:27

There is not such tone sandhi for 2nd-2nd tone in Mandarin.

Sometimes the second one becomes neutral, but that is because the repeat of the same character, not the repeat of tone. And will happen for any tone, not only 2nd. If the same character repeat twice, the second may become neutral. I cannot give a definite rule when they must or cannot change though.

As the matter of fact, when talk about tone sandhi in Mandarin, the only one that is significant is the 3rd-3rd -> 2nd-3rd one. It always happens. Others seem all optional. In bisyllable word, that may be the only one possible.

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