Some thoughts on Chinese Tones

The tones in Chinese give rise to a lot of confusion and discussion. I am always trying to come up with different ways to explain them and different ways to think about them to make them stick more easily to English-speaking memories. Having received a recent barrage of questions regarding the tones, it seemed like a good moment to talk about a few of these ideas – and hopefully open up a discussion about the ways that other people have found that help them to get to grips with the tones.

In English the meaning of sentences can be hugely altered depending on the tone of voice of the speaker. Native English speakers are adept at picking up dozens of nuances in the way that words are said and the possible meaning that those tones may carry; sarcasm, anger, amusement, mocking – all of these can be layered into a sentence through manipulating the tone of your voice.

In Mandarin tone plays an equally important, but quite different, role. In Mandarin there are many words who’s pronunciation sounds very similar to each other. Often the only thing that allows you to tell two words apart is the tone with which they are pronounced. So “he” pronounced with a certain tone of voice means “to drink” while when it is pronounced in another tone of voice it means “river” (and, as an aside, it is pronounced in both cases to sound more like “her” than then English word “he).

This does sometimes happen in English, but much more rarely and the rules are less clear. But consider this: if someone asked you how you were doing, you might reply, “Great.”

By changing the tone of your voice however, you could change the meaning of the word “great” to mean that you were very well indeed, or actually pretty terrible. The tone of your voice can give the word a totally different meaning.

But unlike in English, in Mandarin there are well documented rules on the different tones that are used in order to say different words. There are five tones in Mandarin, which are usually described as follows:

1st tone – high and level 2nd tone – mid and rising 3rd tone – falling quickly and then rising 4th tone – falling 5th tone – neutral tone

The number of the tone is written after the syllable is spelled out (sometimes the tones can also be represented by little lines above the letters, but that system is not used on Memrise).

So ma1 is “ma” pronounced with the 1st tone. And ma3 is “ma” pronounced with the 3rd tone.

An extra aside here that is worth noting is that there is some discussion over whether these labels are in fact the most accurate and useful. The third tone in particular often does not actually always sound like a clear down-up when it is spoken in normal conversation. This article suggests an excellent alternative way of thinking about it, where the 3rd tone is viewed as simple a “low” tone. The “down-up” third tone is viewed as a special case when the syllables are uttered in isolation, but the general instance is just a low tone. I find this to be very useful in helping me to pronounce third tones correctly when spoken in the middle of sentences.

Well, now we have got that straight, it just leaves on major question: how on earth do you remember which tone is which and which one you need to use for which word?

Well first, you should probably read this article on Laowai Chinese, that introduces a great mnemonic method. Basically, the idea is this: you have to get to know the tones intimately. Listen to words of each tone. Get a feel for how they sound different. See what feelings each tone arouses in you, and build on those associations. By establishing a strong set of emotional connections to each tone, you will find them much easier to remember. Here are the associations that work for me – these ideas were inspired by what what I read on Laowai Chinese and you should feel free to use whichever associations work best for you as well!

The 1st tone to me is the singing tone. It is high and insistent and a little bit annoying in an over-happy sort of a way. It is kind of like Peking Opera (if you haven’t heard Peking Opera, take a look at this check out his high tones). These words annoy me, but I feel a bit bad about that. They are happy and singing, after all.

The 2nd tone is a rising tone that sounds like a question to most English speakers. So think of 2nd tone words as questioning, worried and insecure words. I like these words because all I have to do is to think in a questioning way and I get the tone right because I naturally speak questions in a second tone.

The 3rd tone is the annoying, mocking school bully saying “wooo” in a down-up way while teasing you. It is a nasty, annoying tone. Urrgh. It also mis-behaves when put next to other tones, which is an irritating habit, and will get on your nerves. I hold this tone in total disdain.

The 4th tone is the authoritarian, imperative angry tone. It is the one that you shout things in. In spite of this, I am strangely rather fond of this tone. Having a good shout every now and then is quite a pleasure.

5th tone Well, it is nothing really. A limp, dejected tone skulking about in the corner casting furtive glances. You don’t see too much of the 5th tone; he is always a bit of a mystery, sometimes there, sometimes not. I am a bit suspicious of him in truth.


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