Sociolinguistic motivations in sound change: on-going loss of low tone breathy voice in Shanghai Chinese

  • Jiayin Gao


This study focuses on the on-going disappearance of low tone breathiness in Shanghai Chinese. In the change from a voicing contrast to a tone register contrast in Sinitic languages, the ancient voiced series was characterised by a breathy voice quality, which remained as a secondary and redundant cue of low tones in Shanghai Chinese. This study, using transversal production data from 12 young and 10 elderly speakers, shows that low tone breathiness is better preserved by elderly than young speakers, and by male than female speakers. We predict a future loss of this secondary cue, which is speeding up due to the interference with Standard Chinese. We also found that the disappearance is more advanced in female speakers, which might be explained by female speakers’ stronger adherence to Standard Chinese as the prestigious form. Indeed, our young female speakers reported more frequent usage of Standard Chinese than Shanghai Chinese and higher competence in Standard Chinese than in Shanghai Chinese, whereas young male speakers were more confident in their usage of Shanghai Chinese.