Say It Right Series

Tones


pinyinchart_1

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. In order to differentiate meaning, the same syllable can be pronounced with different tones. Mandarin's tones give it a very distinctive quality, but the tones can also be a source of miscommunication if not given due attention.

Mandarin is said to have four main tones and one neutral tone (or, as some say, five tones). Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour which can be graphed using the Chinese 5-level system.

First Tone

The first tone is high and level. It is important to keep one's voice even (almost monotone) across the whole syllable when pronouncing the first tone. It is represented by a straight horizontal line above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number "1" written after the syllable).

Try listening to the following first tone syllables:

Syllable Play Syllable Play
hōu
kōng
nāo


Second Tone

The second rises moderately. In English we sometimes associate this rise in pitch with a question. The second tone is represented by a rising diagonal line above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number "2" written after the syllable).

Try listening to the following second tone syllables:

Syllable Play Syllable Play
hóu
kóng
náo


Third Tone

The third tone falls and then rises again. When pronounced clearly, its tonal "dipping" is very distinctive. It is represented by a curved "dipping" line above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number "3" written after the syllable).

Try listening to the following third tone syllables:

Syllable Play Syllable Play
hǒu
kǒng
nǎo


Fourth Tone

The fourth tone starts out high but drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. English-speakers often associate this tone with an angry command. It is represented by a dropping diagonal line above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number "4" written after the syllable).

Try listening to the following fourth tone syllables:

Syllable Play Syllable Play
hòu
kòng
nào


Neutral Tone

The neutral tone is not mapped on the tone chart because it differs from the other four tones in that it does not have a defined pitch contour. The neutral tone is pronounced quickly and lightly without regard to pitch. Syllables with a neutral tone have no tone mark (but are sometimes marked with a "5" or a "0" after the syllable).

This tone is usually very easy to pick up. Note that aside from grammatical particles, single syllable words cannot have a neutral tone.

Try listening to the following neutral tone syllables:

Syllable Play Syllable Play
ma yǐzi
le hóuzi
bózi    


Tone Rule #1: 3-3 to 2-3

When there are two third tones in a row, the first one becomes second tone. This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin.

Try listening to the following examples:

Originally After applying the rule Play
你好 (nǐ + hǎo) 你好 (ní hǎo)
很好 (hěn + hǎo) 很好 (hén hǎo)
好懂 (hǎo + dǒng) 好懂 (háo dǒng)

There is also a podcast about this tone rule: Two Third Tones.


Tone Rule #2: 不

When the word 不 (bù) precedes a fourth tone, 不 changes to second tone (bú). This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin.

Try listening to the following examples:

Originally After applying the rule Play
不对 (bù + duì) 不对 (bú duì)
不去 (bù + qù) 不去 (bú qù)
不错 (bù + cuò) 不错 (bú cuò)


Tone Rule #3: 一

The character 一 (yī), meaning "one," is first tone when alone, second tone when followed by a fourth tone, and fourth tone when followed by any other tone. This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin.

Try listening to the following examples:

Originally After applying the rule Play
一个 (yī + gè) 一个 (yí gè)
一次 (yī + cì) 一次 (yí cì)
一半 (yī + bàn) 一半 (yí bàn)
一般 (yī + bān) 一般 (yì bān)
一毛 (yī + máo) 一毛 (yì máo)
一百 (yī + bǎi) 一百 (yì bǎi)