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The Tones of Hokkien

Hokkien is said to have between five to eight different tones, depending on the variant. Hokkien dialects in Mainland China and Taiwan tend to possess seven tones, whereas Hokkien dialects in Southeast Asia tend to have six.

The Tones of Hokkien

Published by The LingoNomad

One of the things that make Hokkien somewhat difficult to document is the fact that the language has a lot of different variants. These variations surface in numerous Hokkien dialects that differ in vocabulary, pronunciation, and tones. However, these dialects are often mutually intelligible, suggesting the differences from one Hokkien dialect to another may not be as stark as one might think.

    How Many Tones Does Hokkien Have?

    Hokkien is said to have between five to eight different tones, depending on the variant. Hokkien dialects in Mainland China and Taiwan tend to possess seven tones, whereas Hokkien dialects in Southeast Asia tend to have six.

    The differences in the number of tones occur because of the variations in the merging of tones. In dialects with seven tones (e.g. Xiamen and Taiwanese Hokkien), it is often the case that Tone 2 merged with Tone 6. Don't worry if you don't know what these tones are yet, we'll get to them soon!

    Dialects with six tones (for example, Penang and Medan Hokkien) are often results of the mergers between Tone 2 and Tone 6, as well as Tone 3 and Tone 7. Singaporean Hokkien is difficult to classify in terms of the number of tones it has because it is a byproduct of multiple Hokkien dialects, although the dialect as a whole is closer to Amoy and Taiwanese Hokkien.

    These tone mergers occur because the pitch between the merged tones are relatively close to begin with, so it does not mean that a person who speaks a dialect with six tones will have a difficult time understanding a person who speaks a dialect with seven, and vice versa.

    The Tones

    Now let's take a look at the tones. We will take a look at the tone markings soon after this section.

    • Tone 1: High Level tone, example: ho:ng 'wind', sng 'ice', sua 'sand'
    • Tone 2: High Falling tone, example: cuì 'water', hoì 'fire'
    • Tone 3: Mid Falling tone, example: tiēn 'electricity',  'earth'
    • Tone 4: Mid Entering tone, example: thik 'steel'
    • Tone 5: Low Rising tone, example: thó: 'soil', chá 'wood'
    • Tone 6: = Tone 2
    • Tone 7: = Tone 3
    • Tone 8: High Entering tone, example: cio'k 'stone'

    The Tones of Hokkien

    The table above should help you easily remember the tones. It is ordered from High Level, High Falling, Mid Falling, Mid Entering, Low Rising, and then High Entering—so it goes from High, Mid, Low, and then back to High.

    Hokkien in This Website

    This website will portray Hokkien in six tones, recognizing the popular merge between Tone 2 and Tone 6 across many dominant dialects. I have decided to also consider Tone 3 and Tone 7 merged, for the following reasons:

    • Dialects that merge Tone 3 and Tone 7 do exist
    • Both Tone 3 and Tone 7 are mid tones
    • Both Tone 3 and Tone 7 are close in pitch
    • Not recognizing the difference between Tone 3 and Tone 7 will not pose a significant impact in learning Hokkien
    • Considering Tone 3 and Tone 7 merged will make it easier to learn Hokkien
    • In dialects that separate Tone 3 and Tone 7, Tone 7 often transforms into Tone 3 anyways after Tone Sandhi is applied (Tone Sandhi is a change in a tone when a syllable is put together with another, we might get to this some time later!)

    So, as one of the main goals of the Hokkien section in this website is to make it as easy as possible for those who want to learn Hokkien, once again, this website will portray Hokkien in six tones.

    Tone Markings

    This website has proposed a Hokkien writing system (Read: Writing and Pronouncing Hokkien) that will be used consistently in this website, and this article will further propose the tone markings to be used alongside this writing system.

    As with in Writing and Pronouncing Hokkien, in proposing the set of tone markings, I maintained a few considerations:

    • For it to be as close as possible to Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), an existing Hokkien romanization.
    • For it to be as easily typeable as possible, meaning the characters can be typed on a standard English keyboard without the need to set up another. In Mac, iOS, and Android, to get an accented character like ā, one simply needs to hold the character 'a' on the keyboard, wait for its accented options to show up, and select one.
    • For it to be as resemblant to the tones' pitch direction as possible, meaning the tone markings will as closely as possible resemble the directions of the arrows in the following chart.

    The Tones of Hokkien

    Tone 1: High Level Tone

    Similar to POJ, Tone 1 will be demonstrated without any tone markings. Example: ho:ng 'wind'.

    Tone 2: High Falling Tone

    If you are familiar with the tones of Hanyu Pinyin in Mandarin, you may know that the four tone markings [ā, á, ǎ, à] are written based on the direction of the tone pitch. For example, Tone 4 in Mandarin is a High Falling tone, therefore Tone 4 in Mandarin is written as [à], a downward stroke as shown in the Tone 2 column in the table above (Tone 2 in Hokkien is also a High Falling tone, similar to Tone 4 in Mandarin). 

    This website proposes a High Falling Tone to be written based on the direction of its tone pitch (similar to Hanyu Pinyin), in that it will be written as a downward stroke. Example: cuì 'water'.

    Tone 3: Mid Falling Tone

    Considering the merge of Tone 3 and Tone 7, this website proposes Tone 3 to be marked the same way Tone 7 is marked in POJ. The marking is written as a horizontal line. Example: tiēn 'electricity'.

    Tone 4: Mid Entering Tone

    Also similar to POJ, Tone 4 will be demonstrated without any tone markings. However, it will be easy to distinguish between these two tones. In Hokkien, syllables bearing Tone 4 and Tone 8 ALWAYS end with [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h]; syllables that do not end with these sounds NEVER take on Tone 4 and Tone 8. So, if you encounter a syllable without any tone marking and it does not end with any of these four sounds, it possesses Tone 1. Otherwise, it possesses Tone 4. This also holds true in POJ. Example: thik 'steel'.

    Tone 5: Low Rising Tone

    Maintaining the rationale for Tone 2 above, Tone 5 will be written as an upward stroke. Example: thó: 'soil'

    Tone 8: High Entering Tone

    In POJ, Tone 8 is written as a vertical line, for example: cio̍k 'stone'. This is tricky to type on a computer and many fonts do not support it, and so this website proposes the use of a simple apostrophe before [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h] to denote this tone. Example: cio'k 'stone'. Remember that syllables bearing Tone 4 and Tone 8 ALWAYS end with [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h].

    Read Also

    This article was last updated on Friday, 3 January 2020, SGT (UTC +8). 

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