Skip to main content Accessibility help

Production and perception of a sound change in progress: Tone merging in Hong Kong Cantonese

  • Peggy P. K. Mok (a1), Donghui Zuo (a1) and Peggy W. Y. Wong (a1)


Cantonese has six lexical tones (T), but some tone pairs appear to be merging: T2 [25] vs. T5 [23], T3 [33] vs. T6 [22], and T4 [21] vs. T6 [22]. Twenty-eight merging participants and thirty control participants in Hong Kong were recruited for a perception experiment. Both accuracy rate and reaction time data were collected. Seventeen merging participants also participated in a production experiment. Predictive discriminant analysis of the fundamental frequency data and judgments by native transcribers were used to assess production accuracy. Results show that the merging participants still had six tone categories in production, although their “tone space” was more reduced. Tones with lower type frequency were more prone to change. The merging group was significantly slower in tone perception than the control group was. In illustrating the patterns of the ongoing tone merging process in Cantonese, this study contributes to a better understanding of the forces of sound change in general.



Hide All
Bauer, Robert S., Cheung, Kwan Hin, & Cheung, Pak Man. (2003). Variation and merger of the rising tones in Hong Kong Cantonese. Language Variation and Change 15:211225.
Bauer, Robert S., & Benedict, Paul. K. (1997). Modern Cantonese phonology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Boersma, Paul. (2001). Praat, a system for doing phonetics by computer. Glot International 5:341345.
Bybee, Joan. (2007). Frequency of Use and the organization of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chan, Shui Duen, & Tang, Zhi Xiang. (1990). Quantitative analysis of lexical distribution in different Chinese communities in the 1990's. Yuyan Wenzi Yingyong (Applied Linguistics) 3:1018.
Chao, Yuen Ren. (1930). A system of tone-letters. Le Maître Phonétique 45:2427.
Chao, Yuen Ren. (1947). Cantonese primer. New York: Greenwood Press.
Chao, Yuen Ren. (1968). A grammar of spoken Chinese. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Ciocca, Valter, & Lui, Jessica. (2003). The development of lexical tone perception in Cantonese. Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders 1:141147.
Fok-Chan, Yuen Yuen. (1974). A perceptual study of tones in Cantonese. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Fung, Roxana., Kung, Carmen, Law, Sampo, Su, I Fan., & Wong, Cathy. (2012). Near-merger in Hong Kong Cantonese tones: A behavioural and ERP study. In Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages (TAL2012), Nanjing, China, May 26–29.
Gandour, Jackson. (1981). Perceptual dimensions of tone: Evidence from Cantonese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 9:2036.
Gordon, Elizabeth, & Maclagan, Margaret A. (2001). “Capturing a sound change”: A real time study over 15 years of the NEAT/SQUARE diphthong merger in New Zealand English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 21:215238.
Greenlee, Mel, & Ohala, John. J. (1980). Phonetically motivated parallels between child phonology and historical sound change. Language Sciences 2:283308.
Hildebrandt, Kristine. (2003). Manange tone: Scenarios of retention and loss in two communities. Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Hooper, Joan. B. (1976). Word frequency in lexical diffusion and the source of morpho-phonological change. In Christie, William (ed.), Current progress in historical linguistics. Amsterdam: North Holland. 95105.
Hotelling, Harold. (1936). Relations between two sets of variates. Biometrika 28:312377.
Jurafsky, Dan, Bell, Alan, Gregory, Michelle, & Raymond, William. (2000). Probabilistic relations between words: Evidence from reduction in lexical production. In Bybee, Joan. & Hopper, Paul (eds.), Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 229254.
Kei, Joseph, Smyth, Veronica, So, Lydia K. H., Lau, C. C., & Capell, K. (2002). Assessing the accuracy of production of Cantonese lexical tones: A comparison between perceptual judgement and an instrumental measure. Asia Pacific Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing 7:2538.
Khouw, Edward, & Ciocca, Valter. (2007). Perceptual correlates of Cantonese tones. Journal of Phonetics 35:104117.
Killingley, Siew Yue. (1985). A new look at Cantonese tones: Five or six? Newcastle upon Tyne: Grevatt & Grevatt.
Kratochvil, Paul. (1986). The case of the third tone. In The Chinese Language Society of Hong Kong (ed.), Wang Li memorial volumes. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing. 253276.
Labov, William. (1981). Resolving the neogrammarian controversy. Language 57:267308.
Labov, William. (1994). Principles of linguistic change. Vol. 1. Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Labov, William. (2001). Principles in linguistic change. Vol. 2. Social factors. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Leung, Man Tak, Law, Sam Po, & Fung, Suk Yee. (2004). Type and token frequencies of phonological units in Hong Kong Cantonese. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers 36:500505.
Li, Charles N., & Thompson, Sandra A. (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lin, Yen-Hwei. (2007). The sounds of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Myers, James, & Li, Yingshing. (2009). Lexical frequency effects in Taiwan Southern Min syllable contraction. Journal of Phonetics 37:212230.
Nokes, Jacqui, & Hay, Jennifer. (2012). Acoustic correlates of rhythm in New Zealand English: A diachronic study. Language Variation and Change 24:131.
Ohala, John J. (1981). The listener as a source of sound change. In Masek, C., Hendrick, R., & Miller, M. (eds.), Papers from the parasession on language and behavior. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, The University of Chicago. 178203.
Ohala, John J. (1983). The phonetics of sound change. In Jones, C. (ed.), Historical linguistics: Problems and perspectives. London: Longman. 237278.
Philips, Betty S. (1984). Word frequency and the actuation of sound change. Language 60:320342.
Philips, Betty S.. (2001). Lexical diffusion, lexical frequency, and lexical analysis. In Bybee, J. & Hopper, P. (eds.), Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 123136.
Rose, Phil. (1987). Considerations in the normalization of the fundamental frequency of linguistic tone. Speech Communication 6:343351.
So, Lydia K. H., & Dodd, Barbara. (1995). The acquisition of phonology by Cantonese-speaking children. Journal of Child Language 22:473495.
Tabachnick, Barbara G., & Fidell, Linda S. (2007). Using multivariate statistics. 5th ed.Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Vance, Timothy J. (1977). Tonal distinctions in Cantonese. Phonetica 34:93107.
Varley, Rosemary, & So, Lydia K. H. (1995). Age effects in tonal comprehension in Cantonese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 23:7697.
Wang, William S. Y. (1969). Competing changes as a cause of residue. Language 45:925.
Wang, William S. Y., & Chen, Chin-Chuan. (1977). Implementation of phonological change: The Shaungfeng Chinese case. In Wang, William S. Y. (ed.), The Lexicon in phonological change. The Hague: Mouton. 86100.
Wong, Anita M. Y., Ciocca, Valter, & Yung, Sun. (2009). The perception of lexical tone contrasts in Cantonese children with and without specific language impairment (SLI). Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 52:14931509.
Wright, Richard. (2004). Factors of lexical competition in vowel articulation. In Local, J., Ogden, R. & Temple, R. A. M. (eds.), Papers in laboratory phonology VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 7587.
Yiu, Carine Y. (2009). A preliminary study on the change of rising tones in Hong Kong Cantonese: An experimental study (in Chinese). Language and Linguistics 10:269291.
Yu, Alan C. L. (2007). Understanding near mergers: The case of morphological tone in Cantonese. Phonology 24:187214.
Yu, Kristine M., & Lam, Hui Wai. (2011). The role of creaky voice in Cantonese tonal perception. In Proceedings of the 17th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS), Hong Kong, August 17–21. 2240–2243.
Zhang, Jie. (2001). The effects of duration and sonority on contour tone distribution: A typological survey and formal analysis. Ph.D. thesis. University of California, Los Angeles.
Zhao, Yuan, & Jurafsky, Dan. (2007). The effect of lexical frequency on tone production. In Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS), Saarbrücken, Germany, August 6–10. 477–480.
Zhao, Yuan, & Jurafsky, Dan. (2009). The effect of lexical frequency and Lombard reflex on tone hyperarticulation. Journal of Phonetics 37:231247.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Production and perception of a sound change in progress: Tone merging in Hong Kong Cantonese

  • Peggy P. K. Mok (a1), Donghui Zuo (a1) and Peggy W. Y. Wong (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.