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Tonal Assignment of Loanwords in Medan Hokkien

This is the abstract of a TULCON14 presentation.

Nathan Leung (University of Toronto)

Other than phonotactic constraints, tone must also be considered when words are borrowed from a non tonal language to a tonal language. Cases include Taiwanese Hokkien where Japanese loanwords are assigned tones based on the pitch accent in Japanese (Tu & Davis, 2009) or English loanwords in Cantonese and Mandarin where stressed syllables are assigned high tone (Lai, 2004), (Li, 2017). In this paper, I will focus on how Indonesian loanwords are assigned tone when they are borrowed into Medan Hokkien. 

Medan Hokkien is a relatively undocumented Hokkien variety spoken in Medan, Indonesia and is the main Sinitic language spoken among Chinese Indonesians. It has been reported to be related to Penang Hokkien, and both varieties have origins from Zhangzhou Hokkien in China (Churchman, 2017). Teochew, Mandarin, and Indonesian are also spoken among Chinese Indonesians in Medan, which have all influenced Medan Hokkien. 

Hokkien has seven tones: two checked and five unchecked. The language exhibits complex tone sandhi in the form of a tone circle, where any non-final syllables undergo tone sandhi. However, the tones in Medan Hokkien have to be established first before looking at how they are assigned to loanwords as past literature has not done so (Churchman 2017), (Gao 2000), (Li 1992). An issue to also consider is that there have been reported cases of incomplete tonal neutralization in Penang Hokkien among younger speakers for tone sandhi (Chuang et al, 2013). The same case may be occurring in Medan Hokkien as speakers for this project are young university students and are exposed to Indonesian in their daily lives. 

Words in Indonesian are usually polysyllabic, while words in Hokkien are generally monosyllabic. Tu (2013) gives an OT analysis on how polysyllabic Japanese loanwords in Taiwanese Hokkien undergo tone sandhi only on the last syllable. It is possible that Medan Hokkien exhibits both tonal neutralization for sandhi and that Indonesian loanwords are subject to different sandhi rules as in the case of Taiwanese Hokkien. Moreover, Indonesian does not have word level stress. Zanten & Heuven (1998) discussed that Indonesian speakers can perceive stress but it is unimportant for word discrimination. This insensitivity to stress may transfer over to Medan Hokkien and result in tonal neutralization. 

Data was obtained by asking speakers to name pictures that represented each of the seven tones. Speakers were then asked to translate words expected to undergo tone sandhi as well as loanwords embedded in sentences from English to Hokkien. Speakers recorded themselves, and the recordings were run through Praat for acoustic analysis. Expected tone for these words was based on Wang’s (2017) paper which provided IPA tone numbers for another variety of Hokkien spoken in Indonesia. 

While I do not yet have full results, my current impression is that Medan Hokkien may have less than seven tones, unlike other Hokkien varieties. Nonetheless, this will have to be confirmed from further analysis, as it is based off of the pitch tracks for native words that I am currently looking on Praat. Whatever the findings are, they will be of interest given the major typological differences between Indonesian and Hokkien. This work will contribute to our knowledge of how speakers of tonal languages perceive and adapt forms in a non tonal language even if it does not have regular prosodic cues for stress and pitch to be adapted.


Chuang, C., Chang, Y., & Hsieh, F. (2013). Complete and Not-So-Complete Tonal Neutralization in Penang Hokkien. Conference Paper. 

Churchman, C. M. (2017). The Eclectic Nature of Penang Hokkien Vocabulary, Its Historical Background and Implications for Character Writing. Taiyu yanjiu [Studies in Taiwanese Language], 9(1), 86-125. 

Gao, Ran. (2000). Yinni sumendala beibude minnan fangyan [Hokkien in Northern Sumatera]. Dongnanya huaren yuyan yanjiu [Studies on Language in Southeast Asian Chinese], 165-194. 

Lai, W.S. 2004. Tone-stress Interaction: A Study of English Loanwords in Cantonese. M.Phil Dissertation, Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

Li, Rulong. (1992). Minnan fangyan he yinniyude xianghu jieci [Loanwords Between Hokkien and Indonesian]. Zhongguo yuwen yanjiu [Studies on Chinese Language], 10, 129-152. 

Li, J. (2017). Tonal adaptation of English loanwords in contemporary Mandarin. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 45(2), 423-450. doi:10.1353/jcl.2017.0018 

Tu, Jung-yueh & Stuart Davis (2009) “Japanese loanwords into Taiwanese Southern Min”. In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on East Asian Linguistics. Simon Fraser University. 

Tu, J. (2013). Word prosody in loanword phonology: Focus on Japanese borrowings into Taiwanese Southern Min (Unpublished master’s thesis). Indiana University. 

Wang, G. (2017). A Study of Penang Hokkien Language in Malaysia (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). National Taiwan Normal University. 

Zanten, E., & Heuven, V. J. (1998). Word stress in Indonesian; Its communicative relevance. Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 154(1), 129-149. doi:10.1163/22134379-90003908