In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tone Sandhi

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Typological Descriptions
  • Directionality
  • Tone Sandhi and Syntax
  • The Relation between Tone Sandhi and Stress
  • The Acquisition of Tone Sandhi

Linguistics Tone Sandhi
Jie Zhang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0160


Tone sandhi, a phonological process by which lexical tones exhibit contextually determined alternation, is commonly observed in tone languages around the world, from Bantu to Zapotec. The term, however, is typically associated with Chinese languages, not only because the phenomenon is especially widespread and well documented in these languages, but also because the contour-rich tonal inventories of Chinese languages present a particularly fertile ground for intricate yet typologically well-structured sandhi patterns. The entries in this article reflect this bias. Typologically, the trigger of tone sandhi can be adjacent tones, as exemplified by the famous Mandarin third-tone sandhi, whereby a third tone (dipping) becomes a second tone (rising) in the context of a following third tone, but it can also be the prosodic or morphosyntactic position in which the tone appears, as exemplified by Taiwanese, in which a tone undergoes sandhi provided that it is not in the final position of a maximal projection. The typology of the sandhi change includes local tone substitution (e.g., Mandarin, Taiwanese), long-distance spreading (e.g., Shanghai), and a combination of the two, whereby the tone is first substituted and then spread (e.g., Wuxi). Tone sandhi has played a unique role in the development of phonological theory, particularly the autosegmental nature of phonological features and the feature-geometric representations of tones. But complete theoretical analyses of tone sandhi systems have proven to be difficult, likely due to a combination of a number of factors. First, the sheer complexity of certain tone sandhi systems (e.g., those in Wu and Min dialects) is deterrent enough for a formal analysis. Second, as the result of diachronic changes, many of the sandhi patterns in the present-day systems are phonetically arbitrary. Third, due to complex contact situations as well as internal factors, many sandhi patterns are riddled with variations and exceptions. Advances in phonological theory have allowed some of these problems to be addressed (e.g., variations and exceptions), but early-21st-century experimental studies have also shown that traditional tone sandhi descriptions need to be supplemented with phonetic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic evidence to serve as the empirical basis for theoretical analysis. Another aspect of tone sandhi that is theoretically both informative and challenging is how tone sandhi applies to longer sequences with complex morphosyntactic structures. It is informative to our understanding of phonology-syntax interface, but the derivation of the sandhi patterns is difficult both in rule- and constraint-based frameworks.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide general overviews of tone sandhi, from empirical patterns to theoretical analysis. Bao 1999, Duanmu 1990, and Yip 1990 are PhD dissertations (or their published versions) that have both made significant theoretical advances and achieved good typological coverage. Yip 1995 and Zhang 2010 are survey articles on Chinese tone sandhi patterns, Pike 1948 is an early classic on tone languages, Yip 2002 is a textbook on tone, and Chen 2000 is a seminal volume that provides a comprehensive survey of the patterns of tone sandhi in Chinese languages as well as theoretical issues related to tone sandhi.

  • Bao, Zhiming. 1999. The structure of tone. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Revision of the author’s 1990 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dissertation “On the Nature of Tone,” incorporating scholarship since then. Includes a discussion of a wide array of tone sandhi patterns in Chinese dialects and how the patterns shed light on the autosegmental nature of tone and its feature-geometric representation.

  • Chen, Matthew Y. 2000. Tone sandhi: Patterns across Chinese dialects. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486364

    Definitive volume on the tone sandhi typology in Chinese dialects and the challenges it poses to phonological theory. Issues discussed include tonal representation, directionality, structure sensitivity, tone sandhi domain, and the relation between tone and accent as well as intonation. Includes a bibliography on tone sandhi classified by dialect groups.

  • Duanmu, San. 1990. A formal study of syllable, tone, stress and domain in Chinese languages. PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Argues from a wide range of segmental and tone sandhi processes in Chinese dialects that all syllables in Chinese are bimoraic, the mora is the tone-bearing unit, and there is no contour tone unit. Also discusses the relation between stress and tone and the issue of tone domain with tone sandhi data from Mandarin and Shanghai.

  • Pike, Kenneth. 1948. Tone languages. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    Provides a classification of tone languages into level-tone register and gliding-pitch contour systems but recognizes that hybrid systems exist. Identifies characteristics of tone (e.g., presence of tone sandhi) that contribute to the difficulties of tonemic analysis, and offers methodological guidance. Includes detailed discussions of tone sandhi in Mixteco and Mazateco.

  • Yip, Moira. 1990. The tonal phonology of Chinese. New York: Garland.

    Revision of Yip’s 1980 MIT dissertation with the same title. Presents rule-based analyses for the tonology of five Chinese dialects: Mandarin, Shanghai, Amoy, Fuzhou, and Cantonese.

  • Yip, Moira. 1995. Tone in East Asian languages. In Handbook of phonological theory. Edited by John A. Goldsmith, 476–494. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Reviews the typological arguments for various theories of tonal representation, focusing on the questions of the tone-bearing unit, the primitive features of tone, and the feature-geometric organization of the primitive features.

  • Yip, Moira. 2002. Tone. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164559

    The only textbook on tone. Covers theoretical mechanisms for tonal analysis couched in Optimality Theory (OT) as well as typological properties of tone in different regions of the world. Includes tone sandhi discussions both on Chinese dialects and languages in other parts of Asia and the Americas.

  • Zhang, Jie. 2010. Issues in the analysis of Chinese tone. Language and Linguistics Compass 4.12: 1137–1153.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2010.00259.x

    Reviews the roles that Chinese tone has played in generative phonology, points out the reasons why theoretical analysis of tone sandhi is challenging (especially for markedness-based OT), and outlines potential directions in which the studies of Chinese tone can fruitfully proceed.

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