Updated May 1, 2001

Sound System in Vietnamese (4/4)

越南話e語音系統 紹介

Oatlamoe e Giim He-thong Siau-kai


1. Introduction

2. Vietnamese phonology

    2.1 Consonants

    2.2 Vowels

    2.3 Tones



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2.3     Tones

Mon-Khmer languages have usually been remarked upon for the linguistic category of register, which includes most prominently voice quality as a contrastive feature. Although Vietnamese is not a classic register language, voice quality as well as pitch phenomena are both important in the tone system of Vietnamese (Edmondson 1997:1) There are six tones in modern northern Vietnamese, i.e. sac, nga, ngang, huyen, hoi, and nang. They are composed of contours of pitch combined with certain other features of voice production (Thompson 1987:20). Different scholars may have different descriptions of these tones. The widely cited descriptions about the Vietnamese tones are given by Thompson (1987:20) as follows:


Table 3. Vietnamese tone system (Thompson 1987).

saáÛc tone

Sac tone is high and rising (perhaps nearly level at the high point rapid speech) and tense. For example, ca ‘fish,’ kho ‘be difficult.’ According to Edmondson’s (199?:8) acoustic measurements, sac tone of his informant began at a level of 42 semitones and rose to a value of about 48. Thus he assigns sac tone a value of 35 on the Chao’s scale-of-five system for transcribing tones. Sac tone is similar to tone 2 in Mandarin Chinese (not Taiwan Mandarin, since tone 2 in TM has became a low falling and then rising tone) , such as , , and . The shape of sac tone is close to the rising part of tone 5 in Taiwanese, but pitch in sac tone is much higher than in Taiwanese tone 5. The pitch in sac tone is about the height of Taiwanese tone 8, such as , and.

ngaâ tone

        Nga tone is also high and rising (in other words, the contour is roughly the same as that of sac), but it is accompanied by the rasping voice quality occasioned by tense glottal stricture. In careful speech such syllables are sometimes interrupted completely by a glottal stop (or a rapid series of glottal stops). For example, su,a ‘milk,’ cung ‘likewise.’ In Edmondson’s measurements, nga tone began at the level of 44 semitones and rose to the same top of sac tone. Its trajectory showed a characteristic break in the voicing at about 225 msec (about half of the total duration) into the syllable. This tone neither exists in Taiwanese nor in Mandarin. But is found in Kunming, China (Edmondson 2000, personal conversation).

ngang tone

        Ngang tone is modal; in contour it is nearly level in non-final syllables not accompanied by heavy stress, although even in these cases it probably trails downward slightly. Foe example, ba ‘three,’ xe ‘vehicle.’ Edmondson’s measurements coincide Thompson's description that ngang tone has a slight fall nature from a value of 45 semitones falling to 44 semitones (Edmondson 1997:7). Though ngang tone is phonetically a slight falling, it is phonemically regarded as a level tone with a value of 33 on the Chao scale. It is similar to Mandarin tone 1 (e.g., , ) and Taiwanese tone 1 (e.g. , , ), but with relative lower pitch.

huyêÝn tone

Huyen tone is also lax, starts quite low and trails downward toward the bottom of the voice range. It is often accompanied by a kind of breathy voicing, reminiscent of a sigh. For example, ve ‘return home,’ lang ‘village.’ Edmondson (1997:7) pointed out that huyen tone is lower than ngang tone, beginning at 38 semitones and falling to 36 semitones. He assigns huyen tone a Chao scale value of 21. Huyen tone is very close to Taiwanese tone 3 (e.g. , , ). It is also similar to tone 3 in Taiwan Mandarin (, , ) or the falling part of tone 3 in Beijing Mandarin.

ho?i tone

Hoi tone is tense; it starts somewhat higher than huyen and drops rather abruptly. In final syllables, and especially in citation forms, this is followed by a sweeping rise at the end, and for this reason it is often called the “dipping” tone. However, non-final syllables seem only to have a brief level portion at the end, and this is exceedingly elusive in rapid speech. For example, khoe ‘be strong,’ anh ‘photograph.’ In Edmondson’s measurements, hoi tone began at 42 semitones and fell to 36 semitones only to rise again to about the level of the beginning (1997:8). Its trajectory could be a value of 212 or 313 on the Chao scale. Though hoi tone is usually described as low falling and then rising tone, not all Vietnamese speakers have the rising part. Among Edmondson’s six informants, all three Hanoi speakers failed to have the rise, whereas the three non-Hanoi Northerner all had it.

When hoi tone consists of falling and rising contour, it is close to Taiwanese tone 5 (e.g. , , ), similar to Beijing Mandarin tone 3 (, , ), or Taiwan Mandarin tone 2 (, , ). When hoi tone consists of only falling, it is similar to Taiwanese tone 3 (, , ) or Taiwan Mandarin tone 3 (, , ). The development of hoi tone from falling-rising to falling seems to the same as the change of tone 3 in Mandarin from Beijing (falling-rising) to southern forms, such as Taiwan Mandarin (falling).

na¥áng tone

Nang tone is also tense; it starts somewhat lower than hoi. With syllables ending in a stop [p t c k] it drops only a little more sharply than huyen tone, but it is never accompanied by the breathy quality of that tone. For example, dep ‘be beautiful.’ Other syllables have the same rasping voice quality as nga, drop very sharply and are almost immediately cut off by a strong glottal stop. For example, ma ‘rice seedling.’ According to Edmondson’s measurements, nang tone began at almost the identical height of 42 semitones and fell to about 38 semitones. Nang was much shorter than other tones, and it was assigned a tone value of 32, with a tendency to go lower. Nang tone is similar to Taiwanese tone 4 (, , ), but with relative longer duration.

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