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What is Neutral Tone?
In Mandarin Chinese, pitch changes over a syllable usually signal lexical meanings. We call them lexical tones. The so-called NEUTRAL TONE SYLLABLES are those that do not surface with any of the lexical tones. These syllables always occur in the prosodically weak positions; they are usually produced with acoustic reductions and short duration. What is of interest to me is that their f0 contours exhibit so much variability.
Researchers have argued that because of the variable f0 realization of the neutral tone, different tonal targets are underlying those realizations. For example, in Tianjin Mandarin, structures like “Tone X + Neutral Tone + Tone 1” always have a rising neutral tone f0. This led to the conclusion that the neutral tone before T1 has a special rising tonal target; and in another context they would posit a different target. This seems true, but please note here we only have ONE neutral tone! However, if we have more neutral tone syllables, such as three neutral tones as we used in our experiment, this conclusion can no longer be correct. In this study, with well-controlled laboratory speech, we examined the f0 realization of three consecutive neutral tone syllables before Tone 1. We show that the rising neutral tone realization cannot be treated as a special rising target; rather, it is due to the general raising effect brought by the following Tone 1.