Pinyin Tutorial – Tones

  • Chinese is a tone language. It has four basic tones, which are indicated respectively by the tone marks:ˉ (first tone) 阴,ˊ (second tone) 阳,ˇ (third tone) 上, andˋ (fourth tone)去.
  • There is also a neutral, so-called “fifth tone”, which is unstressed and goes unmarked.
  • The tones are used to distinguish meanings of a syllable. Syllables with different tones have different meanings. Table below shows the example of five characters whose pronunciations differ only in their tones:
    Syllable/Word Pronunciation Meaning Description of tone
    mā 妈
    Mother Flat or High Level Tone
    má 麻
    hemp Rising or High-Rising Tone
    mǎ 马
    Horse Falling-Rising or Low Tone
    mà 骂
    To curse Falling or High-Falling Tone
    ma 吗
    Question particle When a syllable has no tone mark exists, it is called Neutral Tone and is pronounced both light and short.
  • Diagram below illustrates the relative pitch changes of the four tonesfree online chinese language learning.

Rules for placing the tone mark

  • When there is only one vowel in a syllable, the tone mark is put above the vowel.
  • An algorithm to find the correct vowel letter (when there is more than one) is as follows:
    • – If there is an “a” or an “e”, it will take the tone mark.
    • – If there is an “ou”, then the “o” takes the tone mark.
    • – Otherwise, the second vowel takes the tone mark.
  • If the tone is written over an “i”, the dot above the “i” is omitted, as in “yī”.
  • Interesting Chinese “song” that illustrates the rules well:
    有 a 不放过 If there is an “a” in the Pinyin, it will take the tone mark. eg: lai mark at “a” as lài
    无 a 找 o, e If there is no “a” in the Pinyin, look for “o” or “e”. eg: lou, mark at “o” as lóu; and lei mark at “e” as lèi
    i, u 并列标在后 If “i” and “u” exist together,mark at the behind one. eg: liu, mark at “u” as liúgui, mark at “i” as guì
    单个韵母不必说 If there is only 1 vowel, mark at the only vowel

More reference:

Wiki Pinyin (Please look at the Tones section)

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