Each syllable in Chinese has a tone. In spoken Chinese, changing the tone of a syllable changes its meaning. For instance, "qu" in the 3rd tone means "a man marries a woman", but "qu" in the 4th tone means "to go".
1st tone – high, flat pitch (high tone)
2nd tone – rising from low to high (rising tone)
3rd tone – low-dipping-rising (low tone)
4th tone – falls from high to low (falling tone)
In the Pinyin system, the tone mark is placed above the vowel. If there are two vowels in a final, the tone mark is placed above the first vowel, except that when the first vowel is "i", "u", or "ϋ", the tone mark is placed above the second vowel. Examples: liù, duì, yuán. Chinese characters are not written with tone marks.
The following are the four different tones of "ma": (ps i can’t find the exact mandarin words for the last two) *Listen
mā 妈 mother
má 麻 hemp
Chinese also has a neutral tone, which has no tone mark and is unstressed. A neutral tone always follows a major-toned syllable and never comes at the beginning of a phrase:
tāde his (1st tone followed by a neutral tone)
tāmende theirs (1st tone followed by two neutral tones)
A neutral tone is shorter and lighter than major-toned syllables. However there are two levels of pitch for neutral tones, depending on the tone of the previous syllable:
Low neutral tone
When a neutral tone follows a 1st, 2nd, or 4th tone, it is pronounced in a lower pitch:
gēge elder brother
High neutral tone
When a neutral tone follows a 3rd tone, it is pronounced in a higher pitch:
jiějie elder sister
Yī (one), qī (seven), bā (eight), bù (no) can have several different tones. Keep in mind that:
1. Yī can have three different tones: 1st (when used alone)
2nd (when before a 4th tone) or
4th (when before a 1st, 2nd or 3rd tone)
2. Qī and bā each can have two tones: 1st tone or 2nd tone (when followed by a 4th tone).
3. 不 bù (no) can be 4th tone or 2nd tone (when followed by a 4th tone).
3+3 ----> 2+3
If a 3rd tone is followed by another 3rd tone, the first 3rd tone is pronounced as a 2nd tone although the printed tone mark does not change:
nǐ hǎo ----> ní hǎo Hello! How do you do!
hěn měi ----> hén měi very beautiful
Half – 3rd Tone
When a 3rd tone is followed by a 1st, 2nd, or 4th tone, the 3rd tone is pronounced as a half - 3rd tone (which only falls but does not rise), although the printed tone mark does not change:
měitiān every day
mǎipiào buy a ticket
When a syllable beginning with "a", "o", or "e" follows another syllable and could cause confusion about how the syllables should be divided, an apostrophe (‘) is added in front of the second syllable.
For example, Xī’ān (西安 a city name), might be confused with xiān (先 first).
Each of the three components of a Chinese syllable – initial, final, and tone – is important. Incorrect pronunciation of any component can result in misunderstanding. Pay careful attention to each syllable’s tone and practice the tones now, at the very beginning of your study of Chinese. Doing so will give you a solid foundation for effective communication in Chinese.
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