The where and why of missing second tones

image of 'zhong' written with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tone -- with the 2nd-tone one in light gray instead of black textMy previous post mentioned that not all tonal permutations exist in the real world. For example, modern standard Mandarin has zhōng, zhǒng, and zhòng, but doesn’t have zhóng. I did not, however, get into any of the reasons for the absence of second-tone zhong.

Fortunately, my friend James E. Dew, who is much more qualified than I to discuss such fine points of linguistics, was kind enough to send in the explanation below. Jim used to teach the Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Michigan; and for many years he directed the Inter-University Program (a.k.a. the Stanford Center) in Taipei. He is also the author of 6000 Chinese Words: A Vocabulary Frequency Handbook and coauthor of Classical Chinese: A Functional Approach.

Most simply stated, Mandarin syllable shapes with unaspirated occlusive initials and nasal finals don’t occur in second tone. This can be restated a bit less opaquely for those who have not studied Chinese historical phonology, as follows:

Syllables that begin with unaspirated stops b, d, g, or affricates j, zh, z, and end in a nasal n or ng, as a rule don’t have second-tone forms. There are a few exceptions, such as béng ( / “needn’t”) and zán ( / “we”), which were new words formed by contraction — from búyòng and zámén, respectively — after the tone class split described below took place.

This came about because when Middle Chinese (of Sui-Tang times) píngshēng 平声/平聲 split into yīnpíng 阴平/陰平 (modern Mandarin “first tone”) and yángpíng 阳平/陽平 (M “second tone”), syllables with aspirated initials went into the new yángpíng class, while those with unaspirated initials all fell into the yīnpíng (M first tone) group, thus leaving no unaspirated syllables with nasal finals in the modern Mandarin second tone class.

An interesting corollary to this rule is that among Mandarin “open” syllables (those that end in a vowel) with the above-listed initials, almost all of the second-tone syllables derive from Middle Chinese rùshēng 入声/入聲, and their cognates have stop endings in the southern dialects that preserve rùshēng, as illustrated by the Cantonese examples given below.

For those who like to pronounce what they read, Cantonese rùshēng syllables have level tones, either high, mid or low. In the Yale romanization used here, high tone is marked with a macron (e.g., dāk), mid tone is unmarked, and low tone is signified by an h following the vowel. A double “aa” sounds like the “a” in “father,” while a single “a” is a mid central vowel. Thus baht sounds like English “but” and dāk sounds like English “duck.”
  Mandarin Cantonese
bái baahk
báo bohk
別/别 bié biht
敵/敌 dihk
閣/阁 gok
國/国 guó gwok
極/极 gihk
夾/夹 jiá gaap
結/结 jié git
節/节 jié jit
覺/觉 jué gok
決/决 jué kyut
雜/杂 jaahp
澤/泽 jaahk
閘/闸 zhá jaahp
zhái jaahk
zhé jit
執/执 zhí jāp
zhí jihk
zhú jūk
濁/浊 zhuó juhk

3 thoughts on “The where and why of missing second tones

  1. I just can’t believe James Dew is retired! I used to read a *ton* of his e-mails on the Kenyon College Chinese Mailing list, from high school through college (that was already many years ago), and he just seemed too active to be nearing retirement! James, if you’re reading this, I miss you! As a side note, I haven’t gotten an email since Aug 2010 from the Kenyon list, by the way!


  2. It’s true that there are no unaspirated syllables with nasal finals in the modern Mandarin second tone class, but I’m afraid that your explanation of why this occurs is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, misleading (or even wrong).

    First, the reason why only nasal finals are involved was not given. So your explanation is incomplete.

    Second, when Middle Chinese ping tone split into yin and yang groups into Mandarin, it’s voicing that mattered not aspiration. For Middle Chinese voiceless initials, aspirated ones remain aspirated (in Mandarin) and unaspirated ones unaspirated. Thus we have both t? (e.g. ?) and d? (e.g. ?) in the yinping tone. Middle Chinese voiced plosive and affricate initials become voiceless in Mandarin now, they are aspirated if in the ping tone and unaspirated if not. Thus we have tí (e.g. ?) and dì (e.g. ?). Your expression “…syllables with aspirated initials went into the new yángpíng class, while those with unaspirated initials all fell into the y?npíng (M first tone) group” is therefore wrong.

    Why are nasal finals involved? This has something to do with another important phonetic change “????”.One way to state the change is that all the final plosive consonants (-p, -t, -k) in Middle Chinese were dropped in Mandarin and the ru tone syllables were not preserved but to be re-allocated to the other 3 Middle Chinese tones. Thus, ? was pronounced with a voiced initial in the ru tone (Middle Chinese) -> voiceless unaspirated initial in the (yang) ru tone -> voiceless unaspirated initial in the (yang) ping tone (i.e. bá in Mandarin). None of the nasal finals were in the ru tone in Middle Chinese. Therefore, Middle Chinese voiced (plosive and affricate) initial nasal final ping tone syllables were all changed to Mandarin voiceless aspirated initial nasal final yangping tone.

    I hope the above can supplement your explanation on why there are no unaspirated syllables with nasal finals in the modern Mandarin second tone class.

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