What do you know about Mandarin TONEs

For beginners, the most difficult part about learning Mandarin is definitely the tones.

4 basic tone marks

The Chinese language possesses four major tones and a neutral tone. Looking at the following tone marks:

«  ˉ  » is for the first tone,

«  ˊ  » is for the second tone,

«  ˇ  » is for the third tone,

«  ˋ  » is for the fourth tone.


Neutral tone

The neutral tone is known as the fifth tone in the Chinese language, which is quite easy to pronounce compared to the other tones. In fact, we don’t need to raise or lower our tone, just keep it natural as like pronouncing the first tone. The only difference between the 1st and neutral tone is – the latter should be pronounced softly and fast – and it is indicated by the absence of a tone mark above. For example:

  • Māma (Mother)
  • Bàba (Father)
  • Gēge (Older brother)
  • Dìdi (Younger brother)


Different tones express different meanings


Mā: mother

Bā: eight

Má: numb

Bá: pull

Mǎ: horse

Bǎ: target

Mà: scold

Bà: father


The position of tones

In writing Pinyin, the tones are always written above the vowels, not the consonants.

mǎ    bó    hē    yǐ    lǚ

But what if a syllable contains more than one vowel? How should we mark the tones then? You may feel confused about it…But, don’t worry, here is the rule:

When ‘a’ appears don’t let it go,

If no ‘a’ looking for ‘o’ or ‘e’,

‘i’, ‘u’ come together mark the latter on,

Single vowel needless to say!

This is a small formula to help you remember the rule. It means roughly that when the vowels contain an ‘a’, the tone mark is always placed above it, such as ‘lāo’, ‘hào’. If there is no ‘a’, but having ‘o’ or ‘e’ in the vowels, mark the tones above ‘o’ or ‘e’, such as ‘lòu’, ‘yuè’. If you find ‘i’ and ‘u’ come together into one syllable, then mark the tone right above the latter one. (e.g. liǔ, huì). If it’s a single vowel, then obviously, mark the tones directly above it!

Other things need to notice: when the tone mark is placed above the vowel ‘i’, the two dots should be removed. However, we keep the two dots of the vowel ‘ü’ when we mark the tone for it.

Now, are you clear about the tone position? 🙂

A small piece of advice Some textbooks mention that the position of tones is up to the vowel which is pronounced with the mouth widest open. This is true, but have one exception! Ok, I first attached a picture to illustrate the openness of the mouth for the vowels, from the widest to the smallest.

a   o   e   i   u    ü

Clearly, ‘a’ is the vowel which is pronounced with the mouth widest open. Thus, when it combines with other vowels, the tone mark should be always placed above it. The same rule for ‘o’ and ‘e’. However, it doesn’t work on the combinations of ‘iu’. For syllables having ‘iu’ as its part of vowels, the tone mark actually should be placed above the ‘u’, not the ‘i’, examples are ‘liǔ’, ‘diū’ and ‘niū’, etc.

Therefore, if you just started to learn Chinese or still on the stage of practising pronunciation and tones, I recommend you to remember the formulas one, which is more comprehensive.


Third-tone sandhi

A third tone will be pronounced in a second tone if it immediately followed by another third tone, but with the tone mark ‘ ˇ ’ remaining unchanged. For example:

  • Nǐ + hǎo = Ní hǎo
  • Shuǐ + guǒ = shuí guǒ
  • Miǎn + tiǎn = miǎn tiǎn
  • Měi + nǚ = méi nǚ

Tone sandhi is a very common phonetic phenomenon in Chinese dialect. If you find it difficult to follow, especially for beginners, I don’t recommend you to change the tones deliberately, because it won’t change your phrase’s meaning, but just sounds a little unnatural. ^^

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