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Tones in Chinese
Learn Chinese - Practical Chinese
Chinese is a tonal language. All Chinese languages (or “dialects”) have tones.
Although tonal languages may sound exotic, there is nothing special about tones from a physical or physiological point of view. No, Chinese do not possess exotic tone-producing apparatus. The physiological mechanism for producing tones is the same as that for producing intonation, which all languages, including English, employ. The same physiological mechanism is also used for singing. Physically, tones, intonations and singing are all variation of frequency over time.

In terms of pitch contours, the English question intonation realized on such syllables as “really?” is quite similar to the rising tone of Mandarin Chinese; the intonation contour used in declarative sentences as that in the emphatic “yes!” also resembles the falling tone in Mandarin. What IS special about tones is that different pitch contours causes otherwise identical syllables to have distinct meanings. On the other hand, pitch variation used in English intonation only conveys subtle nuances, such as doubt, certainty, and so on.

Some concrete examples.

Mandarin first. There is of course the textbook example of the quadruplet:

Mā ‘mother’; Má ‘hemp’; Mǎ ‘horse’; Mà ‘curse’

You can even form a sentence with three of the four tonal variants.

Mā mà mǎ
‘Mother curses the horse’

Someone once used a very memorable tonal triplet in discussion of dieting. There are three ways to get fat, he said, tāng, táng and tǎng. In English, these three syllables mean “soup”, “sugar” and “to lie down” respectively.

In Cantonese, the same syllable spelled as si can have at least three different meanings depending on what tone it is associated with:

Si with high tone = ‘poetry’

Si with rising tone =‘history’

Si with low falling tone =‘time’

So it is possible to construct a sentence with more than one tonally distinct cases of si:

Koei gei si(low tone) sie si (high tone)?
‘What time does he write poetry?’

A more dramatic example from Cantonese can be seen in the SIX tones that can be used for the syllable yau.

Yau with high tone = ‘worry’

Yau with rising tone = ‘oil paint/varnish’

Yau with mid level tone = ‘thin in diameter’

Yau with low rising tone = ‘have’

Yau with low level tone = ‘again’

Yau with low falling tone = ‘oil’

There are six different ways to indicate tones in Chinese:

a). with numbers 1 through 5 (1 being lowest and 5 highest) indicating the pitch height of the beginning, ending and, if needed, the mid-point of a tonal contour. For example, the four Mandarin tones are 55 (high), 35 (rising), 214 (dipping) and 51 (falling). These are mostly used in scholarly discussion of tones.

b). with tone letters comprising of a vertical bar indicating the whole pitch range and another line either to the left or right of the verbal bar that shows the pitch contour. These are also mostly used in scholarly discussions.

c). with diacritic marks which are suggestive of the shapes of the pitch contours but are not necessarily accurate. The four Mandarin tones are mā, má, mǎ, mà. These are most commonly used in language textbooks.

d). with English letters. These are not as common.

e). with a combination of tone marks and English letters, such as the use of ‘h’ to indicate low pitches in the Yale romanization of Cantonese. For example, the low rising tone of language is spelled as yúh and the rising tone of good is spelled as hóu without the ‘h’.

f). with numbers 1 through N (N being the number of tones in the language) standing for the type of tone. The Mandarin four tones are sometimes represented as ma1 (mā), ma2 (má), ma3 (mǎ), ma4 (mà). This is a very arbitrary system and is used only as a makeshift device when tone marks cannot be readily produced.

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