Sunday, July 27, 2014

That sneaky third tone - stand still!

I've been thinking a fair amount about tones lately, and although some of the points are relatively basic, I thought it would be useful to put some of them down in writing. There is a surprise in here for you!

So today I wanted to write a really short article about the changeability of the third tone - going from blatant to less well known.

1: The Default Position
The character 你 means 'you', and it is written in pinyin as: . This is the dipping tone (it sounds like it looks) - and if you want to hear it pronounced correctly, just selected the audio option here.

2: Two in a word
There are some words which contain two third tones next to each other, like 你好 (nǐhǎo) - this is 'hello' and probably the first Chinese word you learned. In practice, you do not say nǐhǎo when you find words containing two third tones in a row: the first third actually becomes a second. If you have studied Chinese for more than a couple of months, you probably know this. Officially, pinyin still writes this as nǐhǎo even if it's pronounced níhǎo.

3. Two in a row, but different words
This is a slightly different variation of the above, but worth noting. Take the phrase 'very good' which is written 很好 (hěn hǎo).  Even though they are two separate words (so there is a space between hěn & hǎo), you still use the same rule as above, and pronounce this: hén hǎo.

4. The memorise-it-anyway-even-though-it-makes-no-sense type
Many students of Chinese learn the following phrase quite early on: 马马虎虎. It translates as 'horse horse tiger tiger', and the meaning is more like 'not so bad' or 'OK' (not quite a horse not quite a tiger, I guess). And this phrase is a sneaky collection of third tones:
    - 3333: item by item, it's mǎmǎhǔhǔ - but that's wrong
    - 2323/2223: if we followed the rules above, it might be either mámǎhúhǔ or mámáhúhǔ - but that's wrong too
    - 3511: actually the correct tones are: mǎmahūhū (!)

So odd, yes.
But worth noting (just in case).


  1. I would say that the biggest problem by far is that most (yes, most) learners don't know that the third tone is a low tone in a majority of cases. This is much more common than screwing up third tone sandhi. I wrote more about this here:

    1. Hm... depending on what you consider to be the underlying third tone, that's also a case of third tone sandhi, of course, I meant the consecutive T3 sandhi you mention in the article.

    2. Exactly! It was the third tone, and especially 3 followed by 2, the totally screwed me up. I didn't read your article before, and I really wish I had - excellent stuff.

      I think though, even if I had read it 3 years ago, I probably would have been in enough denial that I would have convinced myself I was doing it exactly like the diagram, even through I now know I wasn't!

    3. It took a very very very patient person to show me that my 3-2 was really wrong - it was 2-2, exactly as you say. Everyone should listen to a native speaker saying 可能, repeatedly, at conversation speed. Over & over, and see how different many foreigners are with their attempt at 3-2.

      Thanks for popping around, and especially thanks for that link!

  2. This denial phase is very interesting. I went through that myself, but I'm quite sure that it would have been shorter if I had reliable teachers. For instance, if someone I trusted told my directly that I was doing something wrong, I would be much more likely to listen than if I see lots of circumstantial evidence, in which case I can choose not to believe it (or just ignore it). I think the T2+T3 combo is the one that most students get wrong, 美國 is the perfect example. :)

    1. Since I'm not American, I don't use 美國 particularly often.

      But when no one understood me when I said 选择 - no matter who I spoke to, and no matter how many times I said it, then I realised something was very wrong! :-)