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Cyphernaut - Tones (Chinese-中文)

One of the things that makes Mandarin Chinese a difficult language for westerners to learn is that it is a tonal language. Tones are important in Chinese and are indicated in Pinyin with tone marks above the main vowel in a Chinese syllable. The same syllable with different tones indicates different meanings.

There are four tones; five if you count the neutral tone (a syllable without tone marks in Pinyin). There is no definite pitch for these tones; they are relative to each individual speaker. The tones are listed here and depicted graphically below.

  • 1st tone - a continuous high level tone with a pitch value of 5-5
  • 2nd tone - a rising tone that goes from a pitch of 3 to one of 5; the rise in inflection when saying "What?" gives an approximation to the 2nd tone
  • 3rd tone - starts with a falling tone from 2 to 1 but then rises subtly to a pitch level of 4
  • 4th tone - a falling tone from 5 to 1
  • neutral tone - pronunced briefly with tone determined by the preceding stressed syllable i.e. following a first tone, the neutral syllable would have a second tone; following a second tone, it would have a third tone etc.

four mandarin chinese tones

When vowels appear together in combinations, the tone mark will appear on the main vowel which is determined with the following hierarchical order: a-o-e-i-u-ü. For example, xiē and háo. One exception is when i and u are together, the tone mark always appears on the second vowel, i.e. liù and huì.

The tables below show a few examples of different Chinese or Hanzi characters and how a change in tone changes the meaning of the word or syllable. The Hanzi displayed is Simplified Mandarin.

Chinese Tones - ba
1st tone eight
2nd tone pull
3rd tone measure word
4th tone dad
neutral tone ba imperative particle

Chinese Tones - jie
1st tone jiē meet,connect
2nd tone jié segment,section
3rd tone jiě loosen,unfasten
4th tone jiè borrow

Chinese Tones - ma
1st tone mother
2nd tone hemp
3rd tone horse
4th tone scold
neutral tone ma questioning particle

Chinese Tones - shi
1st tone 湿 shī wet,damp
2nd tone shí ten
3rd tone 使 shǐ make
4th tone shì be

Chinese Tones - wu
1st tone house,room
2nd tone nothing;have not
3rd tone five
4th tone matter

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