Lesson 4

Using Tones

Chinese is a tonal language, but what does this really mean?

Without getting too technical by discussing Chinese morpheme and homophones, Mandarin has approximately 1700 syllables. This number is fairly restrictive compared to English with over 8000. As a result, Mandarin is bound within a limiting number of available syllables to use for speech and writing. To get around this limitation many of the same syllables are pronounced with a different vocal pitch and, as a result, take on a different meaning. This is where the importance of tones comes in. Say a syllable with an incorrect or different tone and the word means something else or is completely incorrect.

We cannot stress enough: Master the tone and sounds and you'll learn Mandarin a lot quicker.

In Pinyin the tones are indicated by a directional line, called the tone mark, above the final. For example, in the word mā the a (the final) has a straight line above it. That line is the tone mark. It indicates what tone to use soma means what we intend it to mean - in this case mother.

Looking again at our previous example of: mā (mother), mà (scold), ma (question particle), mǎ (horse)..."Does mother scold the horse?". It's only the tone mark above the a that gives all four version of ma a different meaning.

Mandarin Chinese (unlike Cantonese) has has five tones - four pitched tones and one silent "toneless" tone. Table 3 below describes each one individually:

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Description of the Tone



The straight line above the word indicates the word is said with a high and flat unchanging tone


To Bother

The up mark moves from bottom left to top right indicates the word should be said in a rising tone



The down and then up mark - like a V - above the word indicates the word is said with a falling then rising tone


To Scold

The down mark from top left to bottom right indicates he word should be said with a falling tone



Grammatical marker used when a questions is being asked

No tone mark indicates a neutral tone, which is flat with no empahsis

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