The concept of the Mandarin Chinese tones is much more complex than that of the intonation of English, in that the different tones of the same pronunciation in Chinese indicate different characters and thus different meanings. Although it is usually said there are four basic tones in Putonghua, the standard form of Mandarin Chinese, there, in fact, exists a fifth one, traditionally called "the neutral tone," which is not considered as a distinctively marked tone because it is unstressed, short, and pitchless. The four basic tones used to be called respectively "Yin-Ping, Yang- Ping, Shang-Sheng, and Qu-Sheng"(阴平, 阳平, 上声和去声), but now most Chinese people are used to naming them simply by number, from the first to the fourth (yi, er, san, si, 一, 二, 三, 四), and the unstressed tone is more often called the fifth or "light tone" (Qing-Sheng 轻声). The name "neutral tone" is also used in some books for the fifth one, but it does not correspond to its Chinese name "轻声") as "light tone."
These different tones and their possibilities of combination in words, phrases, and sentences give the Chinese language greater musicality that can be felt in all other non-tonal languages. Ranking from the unstressed light tone to the one at the top pitch, the scale of tones in Mandarin Putonghua can be said to have 5 degrees. Their qualities may well be explained concerning the five musical notes in sol-fa syllable. If we set the pitch of the first tone at the note of "sol," the other tones would be scaled down in pitch correspondingly, with the second, third and fourth changing and the light tone positioned at the bottom. They could be as described in the chart on the left.
1st tone: high-pitched, level and steady; like "sol"
2nd tone: rising from the middle "mi” to "sol” note
3rd tone: down from "re" to "do" and then rising to "fa"
4th tone: falling from the top "sol" to the bottom "do"
Light tone: lighted at the bottom position of "do"
The four tones are usually marked on the top of the first letter of the final sign in the Pinyin syllable, respectively with -, /, v, and \. For example, the syllable "ba" has its four tones represented as "bā, bá, bǎ, and b.à. The light tone is usually not marked.
However, the tone marks as illustrated above and used in many Chinese language course books cannot be directly keyed in the computer. For this reason, they are now often seen indicated directly by the corresponding number in superscript. Take the tones of the syllable "ba," the first to fourth are respectively represented as ba1, ba2, ba3, and ba4. As for the "light tone", it is either left unmarked or marked with the superscript number 0. Here in this book, we will not mark it.
For convenience, we adopt the relatively simple method of superscript numbers hereafter through this article.
Given the variations of tone changes in words, phrases, and clauses, it is obvious that having completely learned the Pinyin system and thus being able to "spell the sounds" of all the possible syllables is only about halfway in learning the Chinese phonology. A foreign learner usually finds it difficult because neither the Pinyin spellings nor tone marks are given in normally written texts except in the very beginners' course books. Besides, tones are highly arbitrary too, showing no rules as to any relation to the meanings of words or their parts of speech. Each character's "assigned" tone is to be learned along with the pronunciation, just as the gender of the French noun is determined together with the word itself. Misuse of the tones may completely change the meaning of a word or a sentence, or simply make the utterance difficult to understand if not completely incomprehensible. Chinese characters (syllables in Pinyin representation) are rich in homophones, and tonal differences in the speech function to disambiguate the pitch meanings of many homophonic words from each other.
In the following, we will just take two groups of words to demonstrate the changes in meaning in different tones of the same pronunciations. The first group contains the numbers 1 to 10, and the second the pronouns.
1. Group 1: Homophones of Numbers
yi1 1)一 one
yi1 2)衣 clothes, garment;
yi1 3)依 lean on, rely on, as per
yi2 1)移 move, transfer;
yi2 2)姨 Aunt (mother's younger sister)
yi3 1)以 with, by means of, because of, in order to;
yi3 2)乙secondary, another
yi4 1)意 meaning, idea, intention or will, hint;
yi4 2)义 meaning, justice, righteousness;
yi4 3)易 easy; change, barter
er4 二 two
er1 (no character in Putonghua)
er2 儿 son, child, youth; also a suffix of a noun (usually meaning something small or lovable)
er3 1)而(a structurally function word) but, and, so that, to;
er3 2)耳 ear, only, just;
san1 三 three
san2 (no match in Standard Mandarin)
san3 1)散 loose, come lose, scattered;
san3 2)伞 umbrella
san4 散 disperse, distribute, spread, dispel
si4 四 Four
si1 1)思 think, miss;
si1 2)丝 silk
si2 (no character in Standard Mandarin)
si3 死 die, be dead, death
si4 似 alike, similar, look like
wu3 五 Five
wu1 1)屋 house;
wu1 2)乌 black; crow
wu2 1)无 without, nil, non-existent;
wu2 2)吴 family name
wu3 1)舞 dance, wave (verb);
wu3 2)武 military, martial, force
wu4 1)物 material, material object, matter;
wu4 2)务 business (to do as a duty);
wu4 3)雾 fog
liu4 六 Six
liu1 溜 slide, slip away
liu2 1)留 stay, leave behind;
liu2 2)流 flow, stream;
liu2 3)刘 a family name
liu3 柳 willow (tree), a family name
liu4 2)遛 go on a leisure walk or run, take (an animal) for a walk or run)
qi1 七 Seven
qi1 2)妻 wife;
qi1 3)期 period, term;
qi1 4)漆 paint, lacquer;
qi1 5)欺 cheat, take advantage of
qi2 1)其 that, this; of this, of that;
qi2 2)奇 strange, wonder;
qi2 3)齐 evened or ordered;
qi2 4)骑 straddle on (as on a horse)
qi2 5)旗 flag or banner;
qi2 6)棋 chess
qi3 1)起 rise, get up, start;
qi3 2)岂 a rhetorical question marker;企 plan to do, attempt to do
qi4 1)气 gas, air, annoy, smell;
qi4 2)汽 steam, aqueous vapour;
qi4 3)器 a tool or container;
qi4 4) 弃 give up
ba1 八 Eight
ba2 拔 pull up, lift, pick
ba3 把(grammar) function word that changes the position of an object to the front of the verb; hold, grasp, a handle of something; a measure word
ba4 1)爸 father;
ba4 2)霸 dominate, tyrant
jiu3 九 Nine
jiu1 纠entangle, correct;
ju2 (no character in Standard Mandarin)
jiu3 2)久 long in time;
jiu3 3)酒 wine
ju4 1)舅 uncle on the mother's side;
ju4 2)就 a functional adverb;
ju4 3)旧 old, past, used;
ju4 4)救 rescue, save
shi2 十 Ten
shi1 1)湿 wet, watery;
shi1 2)诗 poem, poetry;
shi1 3)师 master, teacher, mentor
shi2 2)时 time, occasion;
shi2 3)实 solid, filled, actual;
shi2 4)食 food; eat
shi3 1)史 history;
shi3 2)室 room, cell;
shi3 3)使 cause (something to happen)
shi4 1)是 is, yes;
shi4 2)事 a thing to do, business;
shi4 3)试 try, test;
shi4 4)市 city, municipality, marketplace
Group 2: Homophones of Pronouns
Homophones of Pronouns
wo3 我 I, me
wo1 1)窝 Den (usually of animal);
wo1 2)祸 whirl of water
wo2 (no character in Standard Mandarin)
wo4 1)握 grasp, take hold;
wo4 2)臣卜（of a person ) lie down, (of an animal) crouch
ni3 你 You
ni1 1)妮 girl, lass, a nun (of a temple)
ni2 1)泥 mud, paste;
ni2 2)悅 a family name
ni3 拟 make (especially by imitation), plan, draw up (a draft)
ni4 1)逆 contrary, go against;
ni4 2)腻(too) too oily, be bored with too much of something
ta1 他(male), female (她), 它(non-personal)
ta2 (no character in Standard Mandarin)
ta3 塔 tower, pagoda
ta4 踏 stamp (with feet), step on
zhe4 这 this
na4 那 that
The plural forms of pronouns
The plural forms of the three pronouns are constructed simply by adding the suffixes “们” (men) and "些" (xie) to the singular pronouns, respectively for the personal and deictic pronouns. As a suffix, both the characters are usually pronounced with their original tones changed to the light, or kept when especially emphasizing the plural meaning.
我们 wo3men we, us
我闷 wo3men4 (a sentence) I feel suffocated/sullen.
你们 ni3men you (plural)
你闷 ni3men4 (a sentence) You feel suffocated/sullen.
他们 ta1men they, them
他闷 ta1men4 (a sentence) He feels suffocated/sullen.
As there are possible sound changes resulted from the sound context, there may also be some changes in the tones of Chinese that are caused by the tones of the preceding or succeeding words. This kind of change occurs when the original tones of two directly connected words are hard to keep in the fast and natural flow of speech, or other words when one tone affect another in the natureral flow. Mandarin Chinese is rich in tone sandhi phenomena, in spite of the general rule that a certain tone is usually fixed for every character's pronunciation. For people who have already learned Chinese to such a level as to be able to speak it with some fluency, the change of tones in context may come naturally, for the phenomenon itself is rooted in the fact that sounds and tones are all used with the least effort, without a break. For beginners, however, it is certainly necessary to learn and remember the basic rules that govern the changes.
We can classify tone changes in Mandarin Chinese into two major categories by feature, the Stress Contrast Change, and the Affected Change. The former category mainly includes the changes from other tones to the unstressed light tone (also called "neutral tone"), so that the stressed syllables in the same words are made more prominent. And the latter category covers the changes that occur because of the direct influence of the preceding or following syllable's tones.
1. Stress Contrast Change
In the case of two-character words, the tone of the second character will tend to be changed into a light tone to set off the importance of the first characters meaning. This kind of change is found in two kinds of combinations: 1) the second character is a repetition of the first; 2) it is complementary in meaning to the first or has no particular meaning but is only used as an ending suffix of a two-character word.
Group 1: Repetition Light Tone
Verbs in Chinese can usually be repeated, making the action a particular one at a time or giving them very subtle additional nuances of meaning such as "for now," "for a while," "take time to do," etc.
In such situations, the tone in the repeated character is habitually changed into the light tone.
谢谢 xie4xie Thank you; thanks
歇歇 xie1xie Take a rest
听听 ting1ting Listen for a while
说说 shuo1shuo Take time to tell/say/explain
看看 kan4kan Have/Take a look
读读 du2du Take time to read
写写 xie3xie Take time to write
学学 xue2xue Take time to learn
想,想 xiang3xiang Think over for a while
试试 shi4shi Have a try
玩玩 wan2wan Take some time to play
坐坐 zuo4zuo Sit for a while
走走 zow3zou Take some time for a walk
等等 deng3deng Wait for a while, and so on
1) All the above can have “一” (yi) inserted in between the repetition except谢谢, and when it is such a change of tone can also occur in "一" (See the following section).
2) In the 3rd tone repetition, the first syllable is to be changed to the 2nd according to another rule (See the following section). These 3rd tones are printed in italics.
Nouns in Chinese may be repeated, with basically no change in the meaning except adding a nuance of informal style or intimacy, especially in appellations. In such cases, the repeating is changed to a light tone.
爷爷 ye2ye Grandy
奶奶 nai3nai Granny
爸爸 ba4ba Daddy, Dad
妈妈 ma1ma Mom
伯伯 bo2bo Elder Uncle (on father's side)
叔叔 shu2hu Younger Uncle ( father's side)
婶婶 shen3shen Younger aunt (on father's side)
姑姑 gu1gu Aunt (on father's side)
舅舅 jiu4jiu Uncle (on mothers side)
哥哥 ge1ge Elder brother
姐姐 jie3jie Elder sister
妹妹 mei4mei Younger sister
弟弟 di4di Younger brother
太太 tai4tai Wife (with decent or respected nuance)
Special Notes: The third tone repetition rule that changes the first syllable's tone to the second doesn't apply to this group of words (as seen in “奶奶," "婶婶" and "姐姐"), simply because the second syllable does not have any additional meaning.
Exceptions to Repetition Light Tone
1, Plurality Repetition of Nouns
When the same noun character is repeated for reasons of plurality, to mean "every" or with the repeated character functioning in effect as the English plural form), there is no change of tone except for third tone repetition (in italics).
人人 ren2ren2 Every person, everyone
个个 ge4ge2 Everyone (person or thing), one after another
条条 tiao2iao2 Every line (of things that may be measured by length)
路路 lu4lu2 Every road, every way, one after another way
一一 yiyi1 Every one, one by one, one after another
家家 jia1jia1 Every family (household)
户户 hu4hu4 Every house(hold)
男男 nan2nan2 Every male
女女 nv3nv3 Every female
老老 lao3lao3 Every elderly person
少少 shao4shao4 Every young person
分分 fen1fen1 Every minute, every point (of time or scale)
秒秒 miao3miao3 Every second (of time)
时时 shii2shi2 Every hour, now and then, time and time
刻刻 ke4ke4 Every quarter of an hour
事事 shi4shi4 Everything (to do), every piece of work
处处 chu4chu4 Everywhere, one place and another, here and there
天天 tian1tian1 Everyday, day after day
日日 ri4ri4 Everyday (daytime), day after day
夜夜 ye4ye4 Every night, night after night
月月 yue4yue4 Every month
年年 nian2nian2 Every year, year in year out
2. Enforced Repetition of Adjectives
Adjective characters can also be repeated as a way of enforcing the expression. In this case, the second syllable will also keep its original tone except those subject to the 3rd tone repetition rule. Such examples are listed in the following.
红红 hong2hong2 fairly red, quite red
黑黑 hei1hei1 fairly black, quite black
白白 bai2bai2 fairly white, quite white (but also an adverb meaning "resultlessly" or "in vain"
清清 qing1qing1 rather clear, lucid
清清白白 qingqingbaibai figuratively used for "innocent", "sinless"
大大 da4da4 fairly big or large (also an adverb meaning "greatly"
小小 xiao3xiao3 fairly small
大大小小 dadaxiaoxiao of various sizes
高高 gao1gao1 fairly tall or high
低低 di1di1 fairly low
高高低低 gaogaodidi of various heights
长长 chang2chang2 fairly long
短短 duan3duan3 fairly short
长长短短 changchangduanduan of various lengths
甜甜 tian2tian2 fairly sweet (of taste)
酸酸 suai1suan1 fairly soury (of taste)
酸酸甜甜 suansuantiantian soury and sweet
Special Notes: In the 3rd-tone repetition, the first syllable is changed to the second tone, thus making the pattern as 2nd tone+ light tone.
Group 2: Complementary Light Tone
A verb character can be followed by a complementary character indicating its direction, aspect or tense etc. And in such cases, the original tone of the complementary character tends to be changed to the light tone. In the following, the original tones of the secondary characters will habitually be changed.
进来 jin4lai2 come in
进去 jin4qu4 go in
出来 chu1lai2 come out
出去 chu1qu4 go out
回来 hui2lai2 come back
回去 hui2qw4 go back
过来 guo4lai2 come over, come here
过去 guo4qu4 go over, go there
上来 shang4lai2 come up, come up here
上去 shang4qu4 go up, go up there
来过 lai2guo4 have been (once came ) here
去过 qu4guo4 have been (/once went) there
说过 shuo1guo4 have said (once said)
想过 xiang3guo4 have thought (once thought)
上去 shang4qu4 go up, go up there
下来 xia4lai2 come down, come down here
下去 xia4qu4 go down, go down there
Special Notes: "过去" is a special case because it can serve as an adverb of time meaning "in the past" and a verb meaning "go over". There is no change of tone when it is used as an adverb of time.
If the second character in a two-character noun is considered as complementary in meaning to the first (or as a suffix), it is also pronounced in the light tone.
父亲 fu4qin1 father
母亲 mu3qin1 mother
儿子 er2zi3 son
孙子 sun1zi3 grandson
孙女 sun1nv3 grand-daughter
媳妇 xi2fu4 wife
朋友 peng2you3 friend
先生 xian1sheng1 Sir; Mr.; gentleman; husband
丈夫 zhang4fu1 husband
夫人 fu1ren2 (your) wife
学生 xue2sheng1 student
徒弟 tu2di4 apprentice
衣服 yi1fu2 clothes, garment
房子 fang2zi3 house, apartment
桌子 zhuo1zi3 table, desk
帽子 mao4zi3 hat
鞋子 xie2zi3 shoe
箱子 xiang1zi3 box
盒子 he2zi3 case
Special Notes: The Chinese "子” can be either in the third or the light tone, but there is a difference in meaning: When in the third tone, it is usually a content word meaning "son," and in the light tone, it is a complementary ending as a suffix.
Therefore, in “父子" (fuzi, father and son) and "母子" (muzi, mother and son), the second tone is unchanged, because the relation of the two characters is contrastive and not complementary.
2. Affected Change
The affected change usually occurs most frequently in three situations: 1) 3rd tone combinations; 2) number "yi" combinations "一"; and 3) negation "bu" combinations. The basic rules are exemplified with some most frequently used words and phrases in the following.
The Third Tone Change
Rule 1: 3rd tone + 3rd à 2nd tone + 3rd tone
When two characters of a word are both in the 3rd tone, the first one is changed to the second tone for easy flow of speech.
打扰 darao, excuse me (for my interference).
好懂 haodong, easy to understand, easily understood.
很好 henhao ,very good
几点 jidian, what time (is it?)
可以 keyi, can, may, permitted or allowed to...
口语 kouyu, oral language, spoken (style)
老板 laoban, boss, employrer
理解 lijie, understand, comprehend
哪里 nali, where, what place
水果 shuiguo, fruit
所以 suoyi, therefore; as a result; for this reason, etc.
永远 yongyuan, forever, for good, eternal
友好 youhao, friendly
语法 yufa grammar, rules of language structure
早点 zaodian, dim sum for breakfast, breakfast
Special Notes: In cases of three-character words, it is the first of the two more closely related in meaning that is changed into the second tone. For example, in either 老板好 (the boss is good) or 好老板 (good boss), it is the tone of "老” that is changed to the 2nd tone, because “老板” is a word.
Rule 2: 3rd tone + Non-3rd tone à short 3rd tone + original tone or à original 3rd tone + light tone
A 3rd tone followed by any tone other than the 3rd tone could have two possibilities in the change according to different stresses: 1) when the meaning of the second character is emphasized, the 3rd tone is changed to a short third tone (or called "half third tone"), one that falls from a low level but does not rise, thus sounding like the light tone; 2) when the meaning of the first character itself is emphasized, its tone is unchanged.
Number "Yi" Change
The word "yi" is in its original 1st tone when used as a numeral (yi, er, san,… shiyi) or as a word ending. In all other cases, a change may occur, following different rules.
Rule 1. Unchanged "Yi" in Numbers
一十 yi1shi2 Ten
一百 yi1bai3 One hundred
一千 yi1qian1 One thousand
一万 yi1wan4 Ten thousand
一亿 yi1yi4 a hundred million
第一 di4yi1 No.1, the first
唯一 wei2yi The only one
单一 dan1yi1 Singular, single
统一 tong3yi1 Unify, unified
十一 shi2yi eleven
Rule 2. "Yi" is changed to 2nd tone when preceding the 4th tone.
一个yige "One" plus measure word
一次yici One time, once
一共 yigong All together
一看 yikan Take a look
一份 yifen A copy of, a part ( one plus measure word)
一再 yizai Time and again, repeatedly
一切 yiqie Everything
一定 yiding Certainly, sure
一去 yiqu Once go, once gone, if goes
一件 yijian A piece ( one plus measure word)
一类 yilei A ( or same) category, a (or same) kind
一下 yixia At once, one time, instantly
一位 yiwei One person
—路 yilu All along the way (on a journey)
Rule 3. When "yi" precedes any non-4th tone, it becomes 4th tone.
一听 yiting 4th + 1st As one listens
一说 yishuo + 1st As one talks/speaks/says
一想 yixiang +3rd As one thinks
一来 yilai +2nd As one comes, upon one's arrival
一走 yizou +3rd As one goes/leaves
一读 yidu +2nd As one reads
一般 yiban + 1st Generally, usually, on the average
一天 yitian + 1st One day
一年 yinian +2nd One year
—级 yiji +2nd One grade/level
一直 yizhi +2nd always
一边 yibian + 1st On one side; in the same time
一起 yiqi +3rd Along with, together
Rule 4. When "yi" falls in between repetition of the 2nd tone, it is changed to the 4th tone.
读一读 du - - Read (for a time)
学一学 xue - - Study, learn (for a time)
玩一玩 wan - - Play (for a time)
尝一尝 chang - - Have a taste (as a try)
谈一谈 tan - - Talk about, discuss (for a time)
聊一聊 liao - - Chat (for a time)
Rule 5. When "yi” falls in between a non-2nd tone repetition, it becomes the light tone. However, between a 3rd tone repetition, it would sound like a (weak) 4th tone.
听一听 ting1 - - Listen for a while
说一说 shuo1 - - Give an account, Try to say it
写一写 xie3 - - Write
练一练 lian4 - - Have an Exercise, drill
看一看 kan4 - - Have a look
想一想 xiang3 - - Give a thought
试一试 shi4 - - Have a try
做一做 zuo4 - - Make, do
坐一坐 zuo4 - - Sit for a while
走一走 zou3 - - Take some time to walk or go around
Special Notes: This verbal structure with "yi” repetition is different from the single verb character in that it gives a nuance of meaning that can be understood as "for the time being", "for a while, "take a little time to do it", or the like, indicating informal manner. However, indirect repetition without "yi", the second syllable is changed to the light (refer to stress contrast change in the previous part).
Negation “Bu’ Change
Rule 1: The word '"bu" (不, no / not) is in the 4th tone, but when followed by another 4th tone, it becomes the 2nd tone.
不是 -shi No/not, wrong
不对 -dui Not correct/right
不错 -cuo Not wrong, correct
不在 -zai Not in, not here/ (in context)
不再 -zai No more, not again
不太 -tai Not too..., not very...
不会 -hui Not able, don't know how, will not
不到 -dao Not (up) to; don't go to
不去 -qu Do not go (to a place)
不看 -kan Do not look/see
Rule 2: “bu" (不, no/not) between a repetition tends to be changed to a light tone.
是不是 shibushi Yes or No? Isn't it?
好不好 haobuhao Good or Not? Ok?
对不对 duibudui Right or Wrong? Is it Right?
行不行 xingbuxing Ok or Not?
在不在 zaibuzai In or Not? (Be) There or Not?
来不来 laibulai Come or Not?
去不去 qubuqu Go or Not?
学不学 xuebuxue Learn or Not?
讲不讲 jiangbujiang Speak or Not?
听不听 tingbuting Listen or Not?
说不说 shuobushuo Say (speak) or Not?
Special Notes: When the verb is in the perfect aspect, the characters “没” (mei) is used in this structure instead of “不,” but it doesn’t apply to the verbs with a superscript in the above, for they are not action verbs.
The tone of a character serving as the suffix of a word is usually changed to the light tone. This is in accordance with the stress contrast principle and can be best illustrated by the suffixes in orientation words.
1) For (left) and "右” (right), the suffix 手(shou3, meaning the hand) can also be used.
2) No other suffix is not used for "内" than "部."
3) "背后" a synonym, is a special case and so the rule doesn’t apply.
4) "中方" which means "the Chinese part," is not a localizer
In spite of the "natural changes" so far exemplified, the tone sandhi phenomena are on the whole limited in number. They can be simply learned by imitation of Mandarin native speakers' speech. However, what the learner should bear in mind is that many changes of the tones are largely decided by the phonological context and sometimes by the relative importance of a syllable's meaning. The syllable (or character) that is stressed according to its relatively emphasized meaning would often keep its original tone if only it does not be, come uneasy under the influence of other tones in the context. Therefore, the overall principle of tone change may be summarized as "context determined" and "least effort."
The change of tones in Chinese words and sentences seem to be extremely difficult for beginners whose native language is non-tonal, but it may not be so as a matter of fact, because many such changes will come naturally in the flow of a multi-syllable word or phrase if it is to be pronounced with the least effort. For instance, the most frequently observed change of the first syllable (character) of a combination with third-tone repetition is hard to avoid, for other, wise there would be a pause so long as to separate the word (repetition) and cut the natural flow.
On the other hand, understanding the meaning of some necessary Chinese words can also help to make learning easy. For example, if the learner knows that root and a suffix forms a two-character word, he or she will find it natural and necessary to apply the stress contrast rule and change the suffix to the light tone.