Some sources say Mandarin has four tones (No!). Some say it has four tones plus a neutral tone (what does that mean??). And others say it has five tones (like this post).
In this post I will *prove* that Mandarin has 5 tones! :-) Basically, I want to show you that the fifth tone is not just the toneless pronunciation of a Chinese character - the fifth tone actually changes the meaning of a character.
The 5th tone is NOT the 1st tone
MDBG screenshot on the right, the following words.
- 地方: If this is pronounced dìfāng (where 方 is a 1st tone), it means 'region' or 'local'. But when it's pronounced dìfang (with 方 being the neutral tone) it means an 'area' or 'place'. Clearly the neutral tone isn't simply the correct way to pronounce the word - it actually has a different meaning when you use either the 1st tone or the 5th tone.
- 人家: Similarly, rénjiā means a 'family' or 'household', while rénjia means 'people' or 'other people'.
- 工夫; And while gōngfū is 'casual labour', gōngfu is 'time' or 'effort'.
So yes, the 5th tone is not the 1st tone.
The 5th tone is not the 2nd tone
- 精神: jīngshén means 'spirit' or 'essence', while jīngshen has more of a 'vigour' or 'vitality' meaning
- 出来: This one is slightly different, in that it's the first of the two characters which can also take on the neutral tone, but we see that chūlái talks about something 'appearing' or 'arising', while chulai is added after a verb to show completion.
- 用人: This one is interesting - and it shows that I'm really skating on thin ice with this article, but in the MDBG dictionary (screen shot way above & right) only shows one possible pronunciation, whereas in the Pleco dictionary (slightly above and to the right) it suggests that while yòngrén means 'to make use of personnel', yòngren simply means a 'servant'
The 5th tone is not the 3rd tone
- 吗: When it's mǎ it's more about a sound-word (used in the Chinese word for morphine, for example), but as a neutral tone it's the question indicator
- 起来: This can be qǐlai (to stand up) or qilai (placed after a verb to showing the process is beginning)
So yes, the 5th tone can't be the 3rd tone.
The 5th tone is not the 4th tone
- 大意: We start with dàyì (main idea), but when we change the tone we get dàyi (careless)
- 生意: We first have shēngyì (vitality), but end up with shēngyi (business)
- 不是: And while búshi (fault) has the neutral tone, bùshì (is not) is a clear 4th tone.
- 世故: And again the one tone has one meaning with shìgù (the ways of the world), while the other tone has a different meaning with shìgu (sophisticated)
There is another one, but again MDBG is silent on the difference, whereas Pleco is very clear:
- 过 (or 過 in traditional): When it's used as a 4th tone word then the meaning is about 'crossing' or 'spending time', whereas when we want to show that is is about putting after a verb to show completion, then we need to use it as a 5th (neutral) tone.
So there! We have shown that the 5th tone is not any of the first four tones - and in each of the above cases we are talking about the same Chinese characters, and about a complete meaning change when the 5th tone is used.
So if you had any doubt whether there are 4 tones or 5 tones - now you now. There are definitely five distinct tones. And it's not just a pronunciation thing!
- As you can see, I'm thinking a fair amount about tones at the moment, and this follows the success of my previous article on the sneaky third tone.
- You might also see this as a confusing follow-on to my discovery that Mandarin is just a series of maths formulae!
- Do you know why I chose this particular photo - right at the top of the article - to be the header for my post? There is no prize - but people will love & respect you if you explain below specifically where I got the screenshot, and why I used it here.
- If you want an intelligent discussion of the neutral tone, as opposed to what you get on this blog :) then read some good stuff, like this Wikipedia article.