Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mandarin has FIVE tones (I said five, not four!)

Depending on what you read, different sources seem to disagree about how many tones Mandarin has. It's not a particularly big disagreement (and somehow, life goes on) but still ...

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.

Brace yourselves.

The 5th tone is NOT the 1st tone
You can see from the 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
Similarly, the following words show that the 5th tone isn't just an alternative pronunciation, it actually changes the meaning of the word:
  • 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
I'm sure you're getting my point at this stage. Again, looking at the MDBG screenshot to the right, you can see that ...
  • 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

I came up with a few more example here, showing that a neutral tone again totally changes the meaning of the word:
  • 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!

Sideline thoughts:
  • 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.


  1. The reason the neutral tone is usually not considered a fifth tone is that it's used on unstressed syllables where the tone can change quite a bit depending on linguistic context. Even if there is a standard way of reading a certain word containing a neutral tone, than pronunciation might vary a lot in a sentence based on intonation and other factors. The basic rule of neutral tones is that they shouldn't have the original pitch contour, but which tone they actually have in practice depends on factors which aren't related to the character or word at all, which is why it isn't treated as a separate tone.

    1. Hi Olle, thanks for that. Yes - when I read that Wikipedia article (that I linked to above) I realised how complex the neutral tone really is. And I think you distilled the key points into a short paragraph - compared with their long descriptions :-) Thanks

      In this post, I was trying to remove the relevance of context and 'other factors' by limiting my consideration to single words - each of which has a 'toned' and a 'untoned' pronunciation.

      Thanks again for your input

  2. Here is something to think about... isn't it contradicting to say the 5th tone is "toneless" (or as I heard others say that it has no tone)? I'm not making any argument - just ponder on it. 😁