CHINESE TONES

Since Chinese is a tonal language, its tones are really important when you are studying it. Tones are an essential part of Chinese, because it can change word meaning if it is mispronounced. For instance, the word “mai” can mean “to buy” or “to sell” according pronunciation tone. A similar case is the word “tang” which can mean sugar or soup. In other words, the tone of sounds changes the meaning of these.

Mandarin has four different basic tones, and one neutral tone. Each syllable of Mandarin in every word has one different tone. If you want to learn Chinese, there is a special system known as Pinyin that can help you. Pinyin uses some diacritics to differentiate the tone of the sounds.

Chinese Tones


This system places over each letter a diacritic with the aim of helping people to learn tones in an easily manner. The four basic tones and the neutral tone of Mandarin are:

  1. The first tone: It is known as flat or high level. A macron (ˉ) represents this first tone; or you can put the number 1 after the syllabe. Some examples are: ā - Ā, ē - Ē, ī - Ī, ō - Ō, ū – Ū, and ǖ - Ǖ.
    We can write or ma1.

  2. The second tone: This tone is known as rising or high rising. An acute accent (´) denotes this tone; or you can put the number 2 after the syllabe. Some examples are: á - Á, é - É, í - Í, ó - Ó, ú - Ú, and ǘ – Ǘ.
    We can write or ma2.

  3. The third tone: This tone is composed of two tones known as falling and rising, or Low tone. A caron or háček (ˇ) represents this tone; or you can put the number 3 after the syllabe. It is sometimes substituted by rounded breve (˘) when there are font limitations, but both caron and rounded breve are different. Some examples are: ǎ - Ǎ, ě - Ě, ǐ - Ǐ, ǒ - Ǒ, ǔ - Ǔ, and ǚ - Ǚ.
    We can write or ma3.

  4. The fourth tone: This tone is falling or high falling. A grave accent (`) represents this tone; or you can put the number 4 after the syllabe. Some examples are: à - À, è - È, ì - Ì, ò - Ò, ù - Ù, and ǜ - Ǜ.
    We can write or ma4

  5. The fifth tone or neutral tone: It is known as neutral. Any accent mark represents this tone; some people put the number 0 or 5 or don't put anything after the syllabe. Some examples are: a - A, e - E, i - I, o - O, u - U, and ü - Ü.
    We can write ma or ma0 or ma5.

These tone marks are only shown in foreign learning text or mandarin textbooks. Piyin system is very important at first stages of Chinese learning, however advanced learners do not need to write them. The following Mandarin Chinese example is very common:

Simplified characters:

  • mā (ma1) - 妈 - mother.
  • má (ma2) - 麻 - hemp.
  • mǎ (ma3) - 马 - horse.
  • mà (ma4) - 骂 - scold.





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