Pinyin 拼音

B. Tones - 声调 Shēngdiào

【汉语拼音 Hànyǔ pīnyīn(Chinese alphabet, Chinese Pinyin)】Unlike English alphabet, Chinese Pinyin is not put together to make up words. It is a phonetic alphabet that is used for marking pronunciation of Chinese characters. Each Chinese syllable is composed of three parts: initial, final and tone. In the Pinyin system there are 21 initials (声母 Shēngmǔ), 2 semi-vowels (y and w), 36 finals (韵母 Yùnmǔ), 4 tones and a neutral tone.

【TONES】 Chinese is a tonal language, i.e., a tones change the meanings of words. This is the most confusing and difficult part for people to learn Chinese. Since Mandarin has a limited number of syllables, there are a lot of homophones whose meaning varies with the tone. In fact, we can assemble the following sentence:

妈妈骂马吗? Māma mà mǎ ma?

Hear it again in slower speed: 妈妈骂马吗? Properly pronounced, the sentence translates into "Does Mamma scold the horse?" Confusing? Luckily this is a specifically designed sentence to show that tones are important to Chinese pronunciation. In normal life, people do not create sentence like that awkward. There are specially trained artists performing much harder ones than this. Those are called tongue twists. However, you need to remember to speak with correct tones. Otherwise, it would confuse or mislead your listeners.

Mandarin is normally said to have just four tones. See its pronunciation rules below. However, there is also a neutral tone which does not occur very often but is just as important.

The tone is indicated by a tone mark placed on top the vowel. It should be placed on the letter a or e is present, on the letter o in the ou final, and on the last vowel in all other cases. The neutral tone is indicated by the lack of tone mark.

The pitch contours of mandarin tones is shown below in the graph. Assume middle tone is one's natural comfortable voice range. Then

  • 1st tone ā ē ō ī ū ǖ keeps at High.
  • 2nd tone á é ó í ú ǘ starts from Middle and increases gradually to High.
  • 3rd tone ǎ ě ǒ ǐ ǔ ǚ starts from Middle Low, drops to Low and then increases gradually to mid-high.
  • 4th tone à è ò ì ù ǜ starts from High and gradually decreases to Low.
They may sound intimidating. But when you gradually learn and practise you will get it.