What is tone change?
Tone change in Hmong is a phenomenon where the tone of one word will affect the word that immediately follows it.
What causes tone change?
Generally it is a ‘b’ tone (cim siab) or a ‘j’ tone (cim ntuj) that will cause the following word to change tone.
An example is the word ‘tus’ which is a noun classifier for people, animals, things in short lengths and a few other specific things. If you were talking about ‘the bear,’ for example, you would say ‘tus dais.’ But when the word ‘tus’ is preceded by the number 1 it causes the tone of the word to change as follows: ‘ib tug dais.’ So in this case the ‘s’ tone (cim mus) changes to a ‘g’ (cim neeg).
The exception is that words that are noun classifiers, even if they have a ‘j’ or ‘b’ tone, generally don’t affect the following word.
This is not always the case, however. One example of an exception is the word ‘siav’ which means the force of life. When it is preceded by the noun classifier ‘txoj’ (something of length) then the word ‘siav’ transforms to ‘sia’ as follows: ‘txoj sia.’
What should I do to learn tone change?
It is my personal opinion that you shouldn’t try to memorize all examples of tone change. There are many, many exceptions to the rules and thus it can be very frustrating if you approach it with a rigid attitude. Just learn the basic rules of thumb and then pay close attention when you are reading or listening to Hmong. Eventually you will pick up the tone changes through osmosis. This is not the only way to learn. It is just a suggestion.
One reassuring thing is that when you don’t appropriately apply tone change but you still use the correct original tone, you will be easily understood. It won’t sound entirely natural, but it is not huge obstacle to being understood.
So what is the rule of thumb?
The general rule to learn would be as follows:
Generally, a ‘b’ tone or a ‘j’ tone will cause the following word to change a:
j, s, or m tone to a g tone
v tone to a mid tone
mid tone to a s tone
Where can I find out more?
There is more information in the first appendix section of the White Hmong – English dictionary by Ernest E. Heimbach