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Review of  Prosody and the Acquisition of Grammatical Morphemes in Chinese Languages

Reviewer: David Deterding
Book Title: Prosody and the Acquisition of Grammatical Morphemes in Chinese Languages
Book Author: Feng-Sheng Hung
Publisher: IULC Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Min Nan
Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 8.1024

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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