10 September 2013

Chinese tones

Chinese is a tonal language, this means that the tones are used to distinguish words each other like we do with the use of consonants or vowels. Tonal pronunciations is essential for intelligibility, even more important than the vowels pronunciation. There are many words with the same pronunciation but with different tones. This tonal pronunciation is the only unique mark to differentiate these words.

There are four tones, and one more neutral tone:

First tone (high-level tone)
It is a steady high sound. It is represented by a straight horizontal line in pinyin or with the number 1.

chī sān
chi1 san1

Second tone (rising tone)
The second tone rises moderately from mid-level tone to high-level. English equivalent of questions. It is represented by a rising diagonal line above pinyin or with the number 2.


Third tone (dipping tone)
This third tone tone has a descent tone followed by a rising tone. This behavior happens when the tone is pronounced at the end of a phrase or before a pause. In other situations it is pronounce as a descent tone without the rising part. It is represented by a curved line or with the number 3.


Fourth tone (falling tone or high-falling)
The fourth consists in a sharp fall, from high to low tone. The duration is very short, similar to English emphasized exclamations. It is represented by a dropping diagonal or with the number 4.


Fith tone (neutral tone)
Very different from the other four tones, this can be described as the lack of tone. It is pronounced quickly and lightly without emphasis. It is used by single particles, commonly placed at the end of phrases. Neutral tone has no mark over the pinyin and it is also indicated with the number 5.

ma le
ma5 le5