LINGUIST List 8.1024

Mon Jul 7 1997

Review: Hung: Prosody and Acquisition

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Message 1: Book Review : Feng-Sheng Hung, Prosody and the Acquisition ...

Date: Mon, 07 Jul 1997 17:17:12 +0800
From: David Henry Deterding <>
Subject: Book Review : Feng-Sheng Hung, Prosody and the Acquisition ...

Hung, Feng-Sheng, (1996). Prosody and the Acquisition of Grammatical 
Morphemes in Chinese Languages. Indiana University Linguistics Club: 
Bloomington, Indiana. 150 pages. 

Reviewed by David Deterding <>


In this book, Hung studies the language development of 6 children, 3 
of whom are acquiring the variety of Mandarin Chinese spoken in Taiwan 
(hereafter TMC) as their first language, and the other 3 of whom are 
acquiring Taiwanese, the variety of Hokkien that is a native language 
for most Taiwanese. In particular, he is concerned with the order and 
the ease with which these children learn to use grammatical morphemes 
in their respective language.

This research has considerable significance because of differences 
between the two languages. Though they are morphologically and 
syntactically similar, they have marked phonological differences, 
particularly as the most common grammatical morphemes in Mandarin 
have a schwa and also have a neutral tone, while those of Taiwanese 
have a full vowel and a full tone. Hung claims that the frequent use 
of weak syllables with a neutral tone makes Mandarin a stress-timed 
language, with a tendency for a trochaic foot consisting of a strong 
syllable followed by a weak syllable, while the absence of weak 
syllables makes Taiwanese a syllable-timed language; so his study 
provides an insight into the different acquisition paths for these two 
kinds of rhythm while keeping morphology and syntax constant.

Hung studies the children longitudinally, visiting each child 6 times 
between the ages of about 1.5 to 2.5 years. He obtains three kinds of 
data from them: spontaneous speech, imitation of selected phrases, and 
listening comprehension. Hung acknowledges serious problems with the 
listening comprehension exercises, so he relegates those data to the 
status of a pilot study; but he finds consistent and convincing 
evidence from the first two kinds of data to show that grammatical 
morphemes are more quickly and easily mastered in Mandarin than 

Hong concludes from this that, because Mandarin is stress-timed, there 
is a strong-weak template used by the children, and the grammatical 
morphemes are learned early because they constitute an essential part 
of this template. In contrast, because Taiwanese is syllable-timed, 
there is no metrical foot providing a rhythmic template, so all 
syllables are of equal weight, and infants concentrate on the 
semantically richer content morphemes. This explains why the 
Taiwanese-learning infants have a greater tendency to omit grammatical 
morphemes, even though one might assume that the grammatical morphemes 
of Taiwanese are phonetically more salient than their Mandarin 


This book is well-written and clearly presented, and it has some very 
interesting data that contribute valuable insights to our 
understanding of infants' acquisition of language. 

I have two main reservations that I will discuss separately: the 
phonological structure of the grammatical morphemes; and the rhythmic 
nature of the two languages. Though these reservations constitute 
questions that should be considered further, they do not necessarily 
invalidate Hung's conclusions, and they certainly do not undermine the 
value of his fascinating and well-conducted study.

Phonological Structure of the Grammatical Morphemes

The morphemes on which Hung concentrates are as follows:

Mandarin Chinese

1. ge Classifier e.g. si-ge ren "four CL person" -- "4 people"
2. de Nominalizer e.g. da-de shu "big NOM book" -- "big book"
3. de Genitive e.g. wo-de shu "I GEN book" -- "my book"
4. zi Diminutive e.g. ya-zi "duck DIM" -- "duck"
5. zhe Durative e.g. kan-zhe wo "look DUR me" -- "looking at me"
6. le Completion e.g. ta chi-le "he eat COM" -- "he has eaten"
7. men Plural e.g. wo-men "I PLUR" -- "we"

All of these have a schwa, except for no. 4, which has a high vowel. 
And all have a neutral tone.


1. e Classifier e.g. si-e lang "four CL person" -- "4 people"
2. e Nominalizer e.g. toa-e chheh "big NOM book" -- "big book"
3. e Genitive e.g. goa-e chheh "I GEN book" -- "my book"
4. a Diminutive e.g. kau-a "dog DIM" -- "dog"
5. leh Durative e.g. che-leh chiah "sit DUR eat"--"eat while sitting"
6. teh Progressive e.g. goa teh khun "I PROG sleep"--"I am sleeping"
7. ti Locative e.g. goa di chia "I LOC here" -- "I am here"

All of these have a full vowel, and all have a full tone.

If we consider these morphemes from the two languages, only the first 
5 are directly comparable. (The direct equivalent of both 6 and 7 
from the Taiwanese list is 'zai' in Mandarin, but as this has a full 
tone and a full vowel, it was not included in the imitation tasks.) 
Of the first five, the durative marker was never produced 
spontaneously by the infants of either language group, so the 
comparison rests mostly on the first four. 

We should note that in all these first four, the Taiwanese morpheme 
consists just of a vowel, but the Mandarin consists of a consonant 
followed by a vowel. One wonders to what extent this CV syllable 
shape contributes to the Mandarin grammatical morphemes being easier 
to produce and more resistant to omission. Given that so many 
syllables in both languages end in a vowel, one wonders to what extent 
these Taiwanese grammatical morphemes remain perceptually salient for 
an infant: even though the Taiwanese grammatical morphemes do indeed 
have full vowels and full tones, one wonders whether they may not have 
a greater tendency to merge into the previous syllable in the 
perception of infants.

Rhythmic Differences between Mandarin and Taiwanese

Abercrombie (1967:97) insisted that all languages can be classified as 
either stress-timed or syllable-timed. However, more recently, many 
linguists have suggested that there is a continuum between 
stress-timing and syllable-timing (e.g. Dauer, 1983). In this 
respect, I wonder how the Mandarin Chinese spoken in Taiwan (TMC) 
should be described.

It is true that the Mandarin Chinese spoken in Beijing (BMC) is often 
described as stress-timed. One of the contributory factors to this 
rhythmic classification is the wide use of the neutral tone, not just 
in the grammatical morphemes discussed above, but also in the second 
syllable of compounds such as 'zhi-dao' ("to know") and 'yi-sheng' 
("doctor"), with the result that there tends to be an alternation of 
strong and weak syllables. As Hung points out (p.19), one of the 
characteristics of TMC is that the neutral tone is avoided in 
compounds, so that both 'zhi-dao' and 'yi-sheng' would usually have a 
full tone on the second syllable. This being the case, one might ask 
how stress-timed TMC is -- surely it is somewhere between BMC and 
Taiwanese on the continuum, and one should be careful about 
classifying it as stress-timed. 


In addition to the two main reservations that I have discussed above, 
there are a few less crucial issues that I raise here. They do not 
interfere much with Hung's main conclusion, that differences in the 
rhythm of Mandarin and Taiwanese offer different acquisition paths for 
infants, but they do raise some interesting questions that might be 
worth discussing.

The issues I will discuss are: the nature of tone sandhi; the semantic 
matching exercise; and the contribution of tone sandhi to syntactic 

Tone Sandhi in Taiwanese

Hung (p.14) lists the seven citation tones of Taiwanese, giving them 
their traditional numbers. Then (p.16) he lists the rules of tone 
sandhi, showing how each citation tone gets changed when it is in 
non-final position. (The third tone, the Low tone, is omitted from 
this list of tone-sandhi rules on p.16. I assume this is an 
oversight, as it is usually claimed that the low tone becomes a 
falling tone after sandhi (Peng, 1994).) 

In listing the rules of tone sandhi, Hung shows the pitch contour 
after sandhi, but he does not state whether the tone "becomes" another 
tone or not. In most cases, one can interpret the modified pitch 
contour as one of the original tones; but in one case, that for tone 
2, the falling tone, the new pitch contour is HM which is not one of 
the original tones. Other linguists have assumed that tone 2 becomes 
tone 1, which is the high level tone. So I am not sure of Hung's 
position: do tones adopt their own, possibly unique, modified contour, 
or do they change into a different tone?

The issue is further unclear because later on, when discussing 
children's errors, Hung does suggest that tone 2 should become tone 1 
after tone sandhi (p.94) and that tone 7 should become tone 2 after 
tone sandhi (p.95), (even though his own rules (p.16) suggest that 
tone 7 should adopt a low pitch contour, which represents tone 3). 

So, do tones "become" other tones after sandhi? Or do they adopt 
their own modified pitch contours?

The Semantic Matching Exercise

To determine whether his subjects could understand the semantic role 
of the grammatical morphemes, Hung presented them with two sentences 
that differed only in the presence or absence of one of the morphemes 
and asked them to match them with pictures. This is problematic, as 
in almost every case, one of the sentences is rather strange, and it 
is hardly surprising that the infants were unable to do the task 
successfully. As an example, consider the following Mandarin pair:

(a) zhe-li you liang-ge dan
 here have two CL egg -- "there are two eggs here"

(b) zhe-li you liang dan
 here have two load -- "there are two loads here"

The problem here is that, while sentence (a) is a perfectly 
common-place sentence, in (b) 'liang dan' is rather more advanced 
vocabulary which two-year-old infants might well not be familiar with.

Another example is:

(a) zhe shi mi-feng de fang-zi
 this is bee GEN house -- "this is a house for bees"

(b) zhe shi mi-feng ... fang-zi
 this is bee house -- "these are bees and this is a house"

The trouble here is that, for it to be natural, sentence (b) would 
usually have a word meaning "and", such as 'gen' or 'he' between the 
two elements in the list. I tried this one on my wife, who is a 
native speaker of both TMC and Taiwanese: she only reluctantly 
accepted sentence (b) as grammatical, and she found it difficult to 
match it against the picture of bees and a house. No wonder Hung 
found his subjects uncooperative at this task!

To his credit, Hung accepts the problems with these semantic 
exercises, and places little emphasis on the results. One wonders if 
it is really possible to devise an exercise for Chinese where two 
sentences differ only in the presence or absence of a grammatical 
morpheme and both are equally meaningful for two-year-old infants.

Tone Sandhi and Syntactic Parsing

The sentences just discussed do suggest one thing further that might 
be worth considering. If we look at the Taiwanese equivalent for the 
second pair of sentences, we have:

(a) chia u phang e chhu
 here have bee GEN house -- "There is a house for bees here"

(b) chia u phang ... chhu
 here have bee house -- "There are bees and there is a house."

There is an interesting difference between (a) and (b): 'phang' has a 
high tone, tone 1, which in (a), as a result of tone sandhi, would 
adopt a mid contour (or become tone 7); but in (b), because 'phang' 
and 'chhu' are two separate noun phrases, 'phang' would retain its 
citation tone and not undergo tone sandhi. This means that, in some 
situations in Taiwanese, the grammatical morphemes may be redundant, 
as the following would already be distinct (though not necessarily 
fully grammatical):

(a) chia u phang7 chhu
(b) chia u phang1 chhu

Hung says (p.86) that both groups of infants learn the correct tone 
system early. One wonders what help the extensive tone sandhi rules 
of Taiwanese might provide infants in parsing a sentence 


Abercrombie, D. (1967). Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh 
University Press: Edinburgh.

Dauer, R. M. (1983). 'Stress timing and syllable-timing reanalyzed', 
Journal of Phonetics, 11, 51-62.

Peng, Shu-hui (1994). 'Effects of prosodic position and tonal context 
on Taiwanese Tones'. Ohio State University Working Papers in 
Linguistics, 44, 166-190.

David Deterding
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University
469 Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259756
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