Hi, I'm a foreigner and I speak Mandarin, Wu and S. Min.
Shanghaiese has lots of tones. I had to learn the tones in order to speak it correctly. Also, I agree that it is the best sounding to the ear.
Tones in the Wu language are extremely complicated because of the
tone sandhi involved. I'm even pushed to conclude that there is not
just tone, but also accent in this language. I feel that the accent
falls on the penultimate syllable (because it's usually higher), but
the accent may actually belong to the initial syllable as that's what
controls the whole phrasing. In Min (and even Mandarin) I would say
that if there was such a thing as accent, it falls on the last
syllable as that's what keeps its original tone--tones ahead of it
You'll find tone sandhi in Mandarin in the following case: when two
3rd tone syllables come together, the first one is read as 2nd tone.
However in Wu, if two 1st tones come together, BOTH tones change into
completely different contours, and it's a different rule for each and
every combination. So 1+1 is different from 1+2 and 1+3 and 2+2 and
3+4 and 4+3: they're all different. But that's just for 2-syllable
combinations. There's different tone sandhi for 3-syllable
combinations (and thus more variables involved), and even for 4- and
5-syllable combinations. Sounds complicated, right? Yeah, especially
when you see a chart that looks like trying to memorize
multiplication tables. The Shanghaiese dialect has some areas that
can be simplified so it is not as bad as some other dialects.
I figured out a way to simplify the process though and make it a lot
easier to remember. I haven't read anything anywhere about trying to
make the process simpler, but it works. However, it still involves a
lot of tone changes.
One good thing about Shanghaiese Wu, is that the voiced and unvoiced
consonants are regular, meaning they haven't changed in thousands of
years from their ancient counterparts. This makes it a lot easier in
dealing with tones, because like I mentioned above, the initial
consonant in a word has a strong relationship with tones.
Basically, the Shanghaiese (I use this name instead of Wu because
every Wu dialect is different) can be mapped out with 5 tones. (1)
Yin Ping--high falling 53, (2) Yin Shang and Qu together--mid rising
34, (3) Yang Ping-Shang-Qu together--low rising 13, (4) Yin Ru--high
5, (5) Yang Ru--low rising 12.
For Shanghaiese tone sandhi, the following combinations are possible:
55-53, 55-31, 55-53, 33-53, 3-53, 55-55, 55-31, 11-33, 11-53, 11-55,
11-13, 1-3, but I have found a way to simplify it. Notice that these
can be divided into two groups: those that start high or mid, and
those that start low--basically the same division of fem and masc
When the 1st in a pair is 1st tone, they will be read 55-21, unless
the second is Ru, it is 55-2.
For all other pairs, the second character tone will end higher than
If the first character is unvoiced (2nd tone), read it as contour 33,
if voiced (3rd tone) read it as contour 11
If the second character starts with an unvoiced consonant, the second
character will be read with contour 44, if voiced--33.
Two character sandhi then yield the following combinations: 55-2(1), 3
(3)-4(4), 3(3)-3(3), 1(1)-4(4), 1(1)-3(3), so 1-4 is possible if both
tones are Ru tones with glottal stop endings, 11-44 if neither are Ru
tones. It also makes it easier for me to remember that a 34 + 34 tone
are then read as 33-44.
The above is easier to read when written like this: 5-21, 3-4, 3-3, 1-
For three character combinations:
If beginning with first tone: read as 55-3(3)-2(1).
Starting with any other tone with a unvoiced consonant: 3(3)-4(4)-2
Starting with any other tone with a voiced consonant (second is
Starting with any other tone with a voiced consonant (second is vd.):
Easier to read as: 5-3-21, 3-4-21, 1-4-21, 1-1-13.
The fourth and fifth character combinations are easier as you just
add a middle 33 contour:
Starting with first tone: 5-3-3-21
First tone unvoiced: 3-4-3-21
First tone voiced: 1-4-3-21
One thing to remember is when to apply tone sandhi and when not. For
example, compound words and phrases use it, but sandhi doesn't
usually happen over word boundaries. For example, to comb out knots,
sI deufa' doe (comb hair-knots), the first character would not have
tone sandhi, but the next three would as a group (compound noun). So
this would have the following contours: 53 11-1-13. Notice that HEAD
starts with a D, a voiced consonant, so this 3-syllable compound has
to start with a 11 tone contour.