Go to site main page,
China Resources main page.

File last modified: 150621

decorative graphic

More Than You Want To Know About

Chinese Tone

Chinese makes use of syllable pitch patterns to distinguish between words. Two syllables which are identical in their vowels and consonants but vary in tone are just as different as if they varied in consonants or vowels. Some "tonal languages" consider only the pitch of a syllable relatives to that of other syllables, but Chinese makes use of both relative pitch and pitch change across the syllable. Mandarin, for example, has a some syllables with a high even pitch, and others with a low pitch that drops yet lower and then rises slightly. Still others drop from high to low or rise from low to high.

The Eight Tone Categories

A useful traditional analysis of Chinese tone across all dialects and at all periods assumes a system of eight named tone categories. Four are referred to as yīn and four yáng .

Within each of these divisions we find tones named "even" (píng ), "rising" (shǎng ), "going" (qù ) and "entering" (rù ). The entering category includes all syllables ending in a stop consonant (P, T, K, and in some dialects glottal stop). The actual tone pattern of an entering tone is often identical with one of the non-entering tones.

The Actual Sounds

The actual sounds of tones in these various categories may vary considerably from one dialect to another (and often have nothing to do with the names), but normally a syllable that is in a particular category in one dialect is in the same category in all dialects. For example, in Běijīng 北京 Mandarin a "yīn even" (阴平) tone is high and unchanging in pitch, and that is the official standard. But in the Mandarin of nearby Tiānjīn 天津, it may fall and rise in some contexts. Having a firm grasp of the categories and knowing that the categories rather than the actual sounds constitute the shared system can be very helpful to the foreign user of Chinese facing dialectical variation.

In classical poetry, the even (píng ) tones, both yīn and yáng, stand together in contrast to all the others taken together, which are collectively called "oblique" (zè ). Poetic lines may then exhibit defined patterns of alternation between even and oblique tones.

Students of modern Chinese usually refer to the tones of any particular macro-dialect (such as Cantonese) by macro-dialect-specific numbers, although this tends to obscure the cognate relationship across dialects. For example the "yáng even" tone is numbered two in Mandarin but five in Hokkien. (There is a table of correspondences at the bottom of this page.)

Tone Sandhi

Sandhi (pronounced: SUN-dee) refers to modifications in a speech sound caused by its adjacency to particular other speech sounds. (For example, in American English the S in "this year" tends to be spoken as SH because of the sound that follows it.)

In most dialects of Chinese, the actual pronounced pitch pattern of a syllable may also vary by context through a process of tone sandhi. For example, when Mandarin has two third tones occurring in sequence without a syntactic break between them, the first is mutated to the sound of a second tone. In Hokkien, students learn that every tone has two pronunciations, the "citation form" and the "combining form." The citation form is used when the syllable stands alone or is at the end of a syntactric structure, while the combining form occurs before any other syllable when there is no syntactic break to prevent it.

Naturally the details can become quite complicated. It is conventional when transcribing most dialects alphabetically to write the unmodified tone and leave it to the reader to apply appropriate pronunciation rules. As a broad generalization, Cantonese is the only kind of Chinese without significant tone sandhi. I have the impression that tone sandhi is most complex in the Foochow (Fúzhōu 福州) dialects of northern Fújiàn 福建.

Reduced Tone Inventories

In many dialects, fewer than eight tones are distinguished. For example, in Hokkien, there is no difference between yīn rising and yáng rising tones, and both are numbered 3 (or called simply rising). In Mandarin, there is no difference between the yīn rising and the yáng rising tones (both numbered 3) or between the yīn going and yáng going tones (both numbered 4).

In some dialects of Cantonese there is a third kind of entering tone, and the entering tones are traditionally numbered 7,8, and 9, thus exceeding the limits of the eight-tone scheme. However because the entering tones are identical in sound to some non-entering tones in modern standard Cantonese, they are not given separate numerical designations in the new Jyutping system used in Hong Kong.

In Cantonese this is possible because most Cantonese dialects do not exhibit tone sandhi. In many dialects of Hokkien entering tones also seem to be identical to some non-entering ones, but it is NOT possible to number them identically because, even if the citation pronunciation is identical, different sandhi rules may apply.

Tone Negation

Finally, in some situations tone on selected unstressed syllables may be negated, a phenomenon known as the qīng or "light" tone. In English such syllables may sometimes be called "toneless." Obviously they have pitch, but they are normally brief and unstressed, and the pitch does not vary from the beginning to the end of the syllable. The pitch itself is a function of the tones which precede and/or follow the toneless one. For example, the "toneless" de in the mandarin phrase tā de jiā (他的家, "his family") is low in pitch because it falls between two high even tones, while the de in xué de huì (学得会 "learn how") is high because it falls between a rising tone and a falling one.

I have the impression that tone negation is commoner in Mandarin than in other macro-dialects, that it is greater in Běijīng than elsewhere, and that it is more frequent in lower-class than in educated usage. However it occurs to some extent in all Chinese.

A special kind of tone negation is said to occur in the lower Yangtse river basin (including Shànghǎi) in which the tone of the first syllable of a syntactic structure will be extended across the whole of the structure, masking the underlying tones of the other syllables.

Here is a table showing the correspondences among modern Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien as they are conventionally numbered.

Tone Name Mandarin Cantonese
Yīn Even (阴平) 1 1 1 1
Yáng Even (阳平) 2 2 4 5
Yīn Rising (阴上) 3 3 2 2
Yáng Rising (阳上) 3 4 5 2
Yīn Going (阴去入) 4 5 3 3
Yáng Going (阳去) 4 6 6 7
Yīn Entering (阴入) * 7 1 4
Middle Entering (中入) - 8 3 -
Yáng Entering (阳入) * 9 6 8
*-Because the final stops have vanished in modern Mandarin, all such syllables have moved to other tone categories.

Return to top.