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The ten tones of Standard Mandarin

Posted by simonpettersson January 8, 2010 in the Group General Discussion.

Tags: pinyin, neutral tone, half tones, tone sandhi, tones

You thought Mandarin had only five tones, including the neutral one? Well, you're wrong. There are, in fact, ten distinctly different tones in Standard Mandarin. ChinesePod just doesn't tell you about some of them (!). That's because they're not represented in the Pinyin, since they're predictable. That is, you can figure out which of the ten tones to use based on the five tone categories in Pinyin.

I've sort of picked most of this up as I went along, but looking into it more thoroughly, I found one tone that I hadn't picked up and that helped me a lot, so evidently, there's something to be said about spelling this out.

The neutral tones
Yes, plural. There are four of them, in fact. Which one it is doesn't need to be spelled out in Pinyin, as it's wholly predictable based on the previous tone. But fact remains that they are four different tones. In the order from highest to lowest, the neutral tones follow the third, second, first and fourth, respectively. So 桌子 (zhuōzi, table) has a lower neutral tone than that of 嗓子 (sǎngzi, throat).

The half-tones
So that's eight tones now (okay, you could claim that the high neutral tone is the same tone as the first tone, only shorter, but we're going for an even number here, so I'm counting it separately). What about the last two? Well, they're the half-tones. There are two of them, namely the half third and the half fourth.

The half third tone is a third tone that doesn't rise again after falling. It's used when the third tone is followed by a first, second or fourth tone (since it turns into a second tone when followed by another third). For example, in the word 好多 (hǎoduō, very much) uses a half third tone. Pronouncing it with a full third tone will sound a bit weird.

Then there's the half fourth tone. I hadn't really thought about this one before I read about it, so I'm really glad I discovered it. Makes pronounciation make more sense to me. You know how when a fourth tone (or any tone, really) character is redoubled, the second one goes neutral? Like in 谢谢 (xièxie, thanks). One of my earlier ChinesePod memories is of Ken saying this is because it sounds "choppy" to pronounce both the fourth tones. Makes sense, right? But then there are words with two fourth tones that aren't reduplicated, like 再见 (zàijiàn, thanks). You don't make the second one a neutral tone, so doesn't it sound choppy? It did when I said it. Then I read about half-tones and I understood that the first of the two is actually a half fourth tone. It's cut in the middle, sinking down just halfways before starting with the second character. So if a fourth tone goes in register from 5 to 1, a half fourth tone goes from 5 to 3. In practice, this sounds like you're de-emphasising the 再 and emphasising the 见, but what's really going on is a half tone.

That's it
So there you have it. The ten tones of Standard Mandarin. Besides improving your pronounciation, this can make you sound even more impressive when describing Mandarin to someone who doesn't study it.

"Yeah, it's kind of hard. It has ten different tones."

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