Monday, January 31, 2011

Transcribing Tones

I’ve settled on the following transcription system for the tones of Taishanese. This schema is different from the one you’ll find in the Basic Course.

mid high low low falling mid falling
a ā ä à

Diacritics can be a bit sloppy. They don’t work with all fonts. Here I use Georgia, which doesn’t support all the diacritics, and so the browser swaps in an entirely different font to represent the unsupported glyphs. These diacritics are almost never on letters like m or n—letters used to transcribe tone-carrying syllables for words like 唔 and 吳 n̈g. Here’s what I get when I try to write out the tones with m and ng.

mid high low low falling mid falling
ng n̄g n̈g ṇg ǹg

Until they’re fully supported in a nice widely-used font I like, I’ll just have to make do.

There’s one more issue with transcribing tones: the changed tones. In certain contexts, the non-high tones may turn into rising or dipping tones. For example, the character 部 is pronounced with a mid falling tone when read alone. But when used to mean a notebook, the tone is mid falling-then-rising (or mid “dipping”). To transcribe the final rise, I use an asterisk: bù*.

I’m very open to other suggestions on transcription, so let me know if you have some better ideas.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Basic Course: Lesson 2

In the first lesson, the Basic Course gave us the 174 potential rhymes of Taishanese, derived from five tones, five vowels, seven diphthongs and six final consonants. It’s worth listening to the lesson one audio to get a hang of the tones.

The focus of the second lesson is the initial consonants, of which there are 20. In the drills, you hear them combined with the different rhymes. The consonants are transcribed as below, using an adapted Wade-Giles transcription, and organized by phonetic features (compare with Standard Cantonese).

p p’ m f  
t t’ n lh l
ch ch’   s y
k k’ ng h  
kw kw’     w

I intend to transcribe these consonants using a system similar to Hanyu pinyin, as in the table below. The change only applies in the first two columns.

b p m f  
d t n lh l
j ch   s y
g k ng h  
gw kw     w

If you want to learn more about the arguments for one transcription over another, you should investigate the Daoism-Taoism romanization issue. For my concerns, I’m much more comfortable using the second table, as this scheme is consistent with the standard pinyin and Jyutping transcription schemes for Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively.

Most of these consonants are pronounced as in English, albeit usually with very slight differences. For example, the s in Taishanese is made with the tip of the tongue pointed down against the bottom teeth; in English, the s is made with the tip of the tongue pointed toward (but not touching) the top front teeth. For all practical purposes, however, you could just use the English pronunciation of these letters and speakers would be able to understand you just fine.

Three consonants, however, are completely foreign to English: lh, gw and kw.

The sound lh is a voiceless lateral fricative. It sounds a lot like simultaneously pronouncing the th in thief and the l in leaf: thlief. In Welsh, this sound is denoted by ll, as in the name Llewelyn. (For the linguistic geeks out there, I would not say that this sound is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative in Taishanese.) It’s a real pain for many non-native speakers to master lh. In fact, it’s one of the last sounds that children master as they grow up (if not the last sound). A common habit of young children is to pronounce lh like kl. Adults, please don’t do this.

The sounds gw and kw are essentially pronounced by articulating the two letters at exactly same time. All you have to do is round your lips for w (as though you’re saying “Ooh!”) at the same time as you make the g or k sound. In my family’s dialect, we don’t really have this sound, but I’ll continue to transcribe it in my posts here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lesson 1 Audio

I’ve been listening to the lesson one audio files on the way to work. I downloaded the files from Ben’s Cantonese Practice Journal and transferred them onto my smart phone. (多謝!) The goal is to practice passive learning, a notion I picked up a few years ago, when I took a psychoacoustics class with Bev Wright. Listening to Taishanese audio on the way to work is how I incorporate language learning, albeit passive learning, into my daily routine. It was easy to see how much my tone perception increased on the drive back home compared to the drive to work (when I was really struggling to differentiate the tones). If I can find the time, I may take out some of the white noise and maybe even recombine the words into an online perception test… again, if I can find the time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Basic Course: Lesson 1

The first lesson of the Basic Course presents the basic syllable rhymes. The basic ingredients of the rhymes are the five tones, five vowel qualities, two syllabic nasals and six final consonants. These combine to make 174 rhymes.

Tones. There are five basic tones, three of which also serve as entering tones. Each tone is described using expanded Chao numbers.

  • mid (33)
  • high (55)
  • low (11)
  • low falling (10)
  • mid falling (42)

The tone descriptions above are different than the names given in the course. The course presents tones in the context of the four tone groups of Middle Chinese (even 平, rising 上, departing 去 and entering 入) split into two registers (upper 陰 and lower 陽). I’m not a big fan of using these terms in English; I prefer names that reflect the tones’ actual pitch contour. There are some benefits to using the Middle Chinese categories, but these categories can also deceive; for example, the low falling tone is classified as “lower rising” in English (陽上).

The course transcribes the tones with diacritics, as in the examples below with the letter “a”:

  • mid: à
  • high: a
  • low: ā
  • low falling: ạ̄
  • mid falling: â

This transcription system diverges significantly from others I’m familiar with. Some of these diacritics are the exact opposite of what they denote in Hanyu pinyin. Most glaringly, the grave accent (`) denotes a falling tone in pinyin, but a mid tone in the course book; likewise, the macron (¯) denotes a high level tone in pinyin, but a low tone here. I’m going to have to play around with a more comfortable way to transcribe these tones; for now, I’m inclined to use pinyin diacritics and expand on these as necessary. But that’s all for the tones.

Vowels. The five basic vowel contrasts are roughly the same as those of Latin or Spanish: a e i o u. The course transcribes the u vowel as oo—I am definitely not a big fan of this transcription.

The vowel e never appears in this simple form. As a rhyme of its own, it takes the form of a diphthong: ei (like the rhyme in say). When combining with consonants, it takes the form of ia before u, ng or k (i.e. velars) and ie before m, n, p, t. Similarly, the course transcribes oo as u before ng or k; since I am such a non-fan of oo, I intend to transcribe this vowel as u.

In quality, the o spoken in the course is most like the English o in four, not like the Spanish o. The a is most like the a in father than the Spanish a.

These vowels combine into seven diphthongs by adding either i or u to the end: aai, aau, iau, ei, iu, oi, ooi. From here on out, I’ll intend to simplify them as: ai, au, iau (or eu), ei, iu, oi, ui.

Final consonants. There are six final consonants: m, n, ng, p, t, k. A set of nasals and a set of plosives in the three basic places of articulation (labial, dental, velar).

The rounded vowels o and u are never followed by labial consonants m and p. (Whenever you see transcriptions ending with “op” in English, this spelling is almost invariably the transcription of the ap rhyme.)

Lastly, the three plosive consonants (p, t, k) only occur with three of the tones: mid, high and mid falling. In my family’s dialect, the low tone also occurs with the final consonants; I’ll have to keep this in mind as I continue on the course.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Study Time

When I was studying linguistics, our professors never hesitated to emphasize that linguists study language, but are not necessarily masters of it. Although I spent many years studying the structure of Taishanese, I am by no means a fluent speaker. In fact, my Chinese is really bad overall, no matter what dialect I (attempt to) speak. My reading and writing is better, but not by much.

So this blog is probably most useful as a catalog of my Taishanese learning pursuits, in addition to whatever side comment I might have. I plan to devote the next 18 months to sprucing up my Taishanese skills using the Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course. The goal right now is to post once a week, covering at least one lesson a week.

With seven volumes totaling 146 lessons, I could be blogging here for the next three years if I can keep it up!