In Mandarin, there is limited tone sandhi, mainly about third tones and the tone variations of yi1 (one) and (not). By contrast, Min has sandhi rules for all tones, as illustrated by this diagram. So I was wondering: is there any sandhi in Cantonese? And if so, what are the sandhi rules?

  • Yes but Wú (吴语, Shànghǎi area) has a lot, and very complicated !!!! Jul 9, 2017 at 9:16

1 Answer 1


Modern Cantonese is generally considered not to have tone sandhi (in Chinese, 變調, but also more specifically 連續變調), that is to say, changes in the tonal values when in certain phonetic contexts.

Cantonese does have a phenomenon of lexical derivation which involves a change of tone, known as 變音 or changed tone; many discussions consider both these tone changes together. This has been dubbed a tonal morpheme e.g. on page 32 of Tone Sandhi: Patterns across Chinese Dialects, and a more comprehensive survey can be found in section 1.4.2 (starting page 29) of Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Several triggers exist, including (with the romanisation used being Jyutping):

  • Contraction: One paper (in Chinese) specifically puts the trigger for this down to the deletion of 一 jat1 /jɐt5/;
  • Reduplication: Especially when followed with the suffix 哋 dei2 /tei35/ as well as in onomatopoeia;
  • Certain classifiers when used as nouns;
  • Dimunitive function, especially with names after the prefixes 阿 aa3 /aa33/ and 老 lou5 /lou24/;
  • Kinship terms, especially direct vocatives for family members.

This "morpheme" generally surfaces as a rising tone /35/, akin to the 陰上 (2) tone. For some select ones, mainly kinship terms, it becomes high level tone /55/ (1); and for others, both parts change, to either /21 _ 35/ (4 _ 2) or /21 _ 55/ (4 _ 1) (e.g. 弟弟 dai4-dai2 /tɐi21 tɐi35/ and 哥哥 go4-go1 /kɔ21 kɔː55/)

Nonetheless, many older papers on Cantonese describe a real tonal sandhi process for the high falling tone (53 in Chao's tone numbers), which was a specific variant of the 陰平 tone (often dubbed tone 1, e.g. in Cantonese romanisation systems). Before other 陰平 tones, the high falling tone would become a high level tone:

[53 _ 53|55] ⇒ [55 _ 53|55]

The 1982 paper The acquisition of Cantonese phonology notes that this had been contested in the 1970s, and questioned the existence of the existence of the high-falling tone in the Cantonese in an infant growing up in Guangzhou during the period. The paper itself shows that by the 1980s, the distinction 三 /sa:m53/ vs 衫 /sa:m55/ was extinct among the parents.

The 1997 Modern Cantonese Phonology states that the majority of Cantonese speakers in Guangzhou retain the distinction, and also retain the sandhi law (section 2.10). But in modern colloquial Hong Kong Cantonese the /53/ "tone" is only commonly preserved as the principal realisation in certain sentence-final particles, such as 先 or 添, and some contractions; otherwise it is not distinguished from the tone /55/. With the gradual passing of this distinction, the sandhi rule has ended up becoming obsolete as the two tones coalesced into one.

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