The Best of Tones, the Worst of Tones – tonal complexity in the Wu dialects of East Central China

Phil Rose (Keynote Speaker)

Friday, December 16th, 2022, 9.15am – 10:15pm


Let’s play a game. I am thinking of a language…  It has five vowel phonemes. What vowels would you chose to maximise your chances of guessing correctly what I had in mind? Well, any linguist worth their salt will nominate /i e a o u/ because, without any other prior information, that is the favoured pattern across the world’s languages (Lass 1984: 139-147). And it is a pattern we can motivate as the one which maximizes dispersion in the acoustic vowel space.

Now I am thinking of a tone language… let’s say with four tonemes. What are they?  Bit trickier, that one: /high, low, rise & fall/ perhaps?  That at least maximises the contrasts and is found in Standard Chinese for example. And how would the tones behave in sequence?  Might a /low – high/sequence be realised as a [rise – high]? or [low – rise]? Or perhaps they would just stay the same old [low – high]? (And of course it is just pitch that we are interested in with tones, right?)

It’s always interesting when our assumptions are violated, so in my talk I am going to show just how far away from these idealisations some tone systems can get – and just what weird things humans can get up to with their vocal folds – in an area of considerable tonal diversity and enormous tonetic and tonological interest: the Wu dialects of east central China. Wu dialects, spoken in the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, were among the first to be researched and described with western linguistic methods. Liu Fu published a description of acoustic aspects of Jiangyin tones and consonants made with a kymograph in 1925, and Chao Yuen-Ren’s 1928 virtuoso monograph on the Wu dialects is unlikely ever to be surpassed as descriptive fieldwork, especially as it was carried out amidst rampaging warlords. Only a little more recently, Kennedy’s (1953) description of left-to-right tone spreading in Tangsic documented autosegmental behaviour of tone several decades before autosegmental phonology delinked its first tone from its first tone bearing unit.

The Wu dialects are probably best known for their complexity in matters tonal, and I want in my talk to give examples of this complexity which I hope will be of interest to SST attendees. We will look at:

  • the diversity of tonal pitch shapes, which include many complex contours; and whether it is possible to say how many different pitches there are;
  • interaction between tone and segmentals, and the headache this causes for our notions of phonological structure;
  • the pervasive tone sandhi patters. These often make little phonetic sense, and incorporate two radically different behaviours (left-dominant and right-dominant) to encode morpho-syntactic structure (like fried rice vs. to fry rice, or blackbird vs. black bird);
  • and last but not least, the involvement in tonal contrast of dimensions other than pitch, like phonation type. 

I will also show how some of this behaviour can be modelled with Fujisaki’s command-response approach, e.g. (2008), modified to be able to handle the increase in complexity.

All this makes the Wu dialects a goldmine for phoneticians and phonologists seeking to analyse, model and understand the ways humans encode meaning in sound.  I shall be giving examples using a data-base of recordings from upwards of 150 Wu sites made in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. You can listen to some of these recordings on my web-page where you can also take a “Wu tone tour” to get an idea of some of the citation tone features.  You can listen to examples of some of the tone sandhi at  It will be advantageous to bring with you a pair of vigorous vocal folds and an energetic epilarynx. See you at SST!

Roger LASS (1984) Phonology. CUP.

LIU Fu (1925) Étude expérimentale sur les tons du chinois. Collection de l’Institute de Phonétique et des Archives de la Parole. Pékin/Paris.

CHAO Yuen-Ren (1928) 現代吳語的研究 Studies in the Modern Wu Dialects. Tsinghua CollegeResearch Institute monograph no. 4. Peking.

George A. KENNEDY (1953) Two Tone – Patterns in Tangsic. Language 29/3: 367-373.

Hiroya FUJISAKI (2008) In Search of Models in Speech Communication Research. Proc. INTERSPEECH 2008, Brisbane Australia: 1-10.