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  Tones - The Four Tones



Tones


These are a few words which illustrate the four tones, and can compare and contrast between them as they occur within the same syllable. No translations are given as it is not the intent here to translate, only to demonstrate the tones.




xiāo
shuāng

tāng


xiáo
shuáng

táng


xiǎo
shuǎng

tǎng


xiào
shuàng

tàng

This basic tone form is not rigorously adhered to, especially in everyday speech, granting the possible exception of a classroom where Chinese is being taught. Tones are very easy to learn. There are only four basic tones in Mandarin (Cantonese has nine) and you are probably already familiar with all of them:

( - ) The first tone is longer and held out, like a steady musical note. You may recall how the music teacher in grade school may have hummed a "do" or "mi mi mi" before the class sang a song. Try humming that same sort of steady note to get the feel of how the first should sound.

( / ) The second tone starts with the voice low. It gradually rises to the first tone, making the whole thing sound like a question. Think of the English "what?" or "huh?".

( v ) The third tone falls slowly, and then rises quickly. If you were listening to someone talk, and wanted to show him you were interested in hearing more, you might say "uh-uh" or "yeah" to him, as a sign of encouragement, in just this tone.

( \ ) The fourth tone starts high and drops abruptly, like a command or interjection. Shouting "Help!" or yelling "Hey, You!" are good examples of this tone.

( • ) The fifth tone or neutral tone. This one is not pronounced with any definite tone, like the others. It is used to denote the lack of a tone. This tonc• is pronounced lightly, without emphasis.
    There are many two-syllable words in Chinese which have a definite first tone, followed by a second syllable with a neutral tone. If the first tone is tone 1,2 or 4, the final neutral is pronounced with less emphasis and lower in pitch. If the initial tone is tone 3, the second tone is again pronounced more lightly, but spoken higher in pitch.


椅子
桌子
鼻子
姐姐
弟弟
眼睛
眼鏡
yǐzi
zhuōzi
bízi
jǐejie
dìdi
yǎnjing
yǎnjìng
chair
table
nose
elder sister
younger brother
eyes
eyeglasses

The fifth tone may be indicated by a small dot, or nothing at all.

Compare how yǎn + jìng with the 3rd + 1st tones (eye(s)) and yǎn + jīng with the 3rd + 4th tones (eyeglasses) change when they are put together.


The specific tone for a character does not always remain the same. The tone can change, depending on the character's position in a word.

When two third tones occur in succession, the first tone is spoken as a second tone; in a succession of third tones, all syllables except the last becomes second toned. There are other irregularities in tone structures, and individuals may use all sorts of peculiar tone contour, but these systems and idiosyncrasies vary form locality to locality. The "two third tones in succession" case is a widely-recognized rule:


很好

我很好
hěn hǎo

wǒ hěn hǎo
very good

I'm fine
when spoken
becomes
hén hǎo

wó hén hǎo

There are four syllables which take varying tones depending on which word follows them:









one
seven
eight
not

These are normally first-tone syllables, except for bu which is a fourth-tone character. However, if one of these precedes and modifies a fourth-tone character, it takes the second tone:




不要




一塊錢

七塊錢
八塊錢


yào
bùyào


kuài
qían
yīkuài qìan

qīkuài qían
bākuài qían
not
want
don't

one
dollars
money
a dollar

seven dollars
eight dollars

If the character following is a first, second, third or neutral tone, bu and the others adopt a fourth tone:







一本書
七個人
不高
八條魚
běn
ge
gāo
tíao

yīběn
qīgerén
bùgāo
bātíao yú
volume, copy
general measure word
tall
measure word for fish

a (volume of) book
seven people
not tall
eight fish

You can make a nonsense word, like yiqibabu, to remember these four exceptions. In regard to the correct usage of tones in everyday speech, native Chinese run roughshod over the strict language format, dropping tones, using the wrong ones, or employing personal or regional speech idiosyncracies.

In Audio Gallery, the tones are somewhat exaggerated. The native speaker pronounces each syllable as it would be spoken if it were to stand alone. Words and phrases have been constructed as combinations of these stand alone syllables. This is to the advantage of the student: typically, the hardest part of Chinese to learn are the tones. Even when one knows the character and the Pinyin spelling of that character, when speaking, it is easy to apply the wrong or no tone. For this reason, the tones are emphasized.

One should enunciate the word or phrase slowly at first, until he can do two things simultaneously: deliver the correct romanization, and say the right tone or tones. After this, one can go for speed.

Some language experts urge that all foreign-language learning be done at the same rate of speed as the native speaks: one should, from the onset of learning, strive through imitation to speak as rapidly as a native. This is not an altogether practical way to learn Chinese, since tones and Pinyin are difficult to learn simultaneously - sort of like trying to learn how to play a piece on the piano with both hands at the same time, rather than one hand at a time.

There is, however, a case to be made that the way to acquire good natural pronounciation is to learn the natural rhythms of the phrases and sentences, and that therefore, one should learn to speak in groups of words, like the native speaks, and speak from the first as rapidly as the native speaks.

As stated previously, in colloquial Chinese speech, there is a general rule of thumb that the first of two successive third tones changes to a second tone. Here, this rule has not always been adhered to; you will have to put in these tone-changes yourself. Don't feel shorted, this was done so that more vocabulary could be included in the limited memory space available.

Do not get pitch mixed up with tone. You do not have to mimic a woman's soprano or a man's bass in order to get the tone right. Imitate only the contour of the voice, or transpose the musical notes in the "Tones" part of the program.