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Tones & Rules

Learning - Pinyin


Tones

In Mandarin, words that have the same pronunciation can have different meanings depending on how the word is said. The "tone" of a word describes how the pitch changes as the word is said. There are four "tones" in Mandarin, and a neutral tone. The tone is indicated by a tone mark placed on top the vowel. The neutral tone is indicated by the lack of tone mark.

 

a

ā á ǎ à

o

ō ó ǒ ò

e

ē é ě è

i

ī í ǐ ì

u

ū ú ǔ ù

ü ǖ ǘ ǚ ǜ

 

For example, an often used phrase, 妈妈骂马吗 - māma mà mǎ ma? Properly pronounced, the sentence translates into "Does Mamma scold the horse?"

 

Mother

The straight line over the word indicates that the word should be said with a flat and unchanging high tone.

1st tone

To bother

The mark going up above the word indicates the word should be said in a rising tone.

2nd tone

Horse

The down and then up mark above the word indicates that the word should be said with a falling and then rising tone.

3rd tone

To scold

The down mark above the word indicates that the word should be said with a falling tone.

4th tone

ma

Grammatical marker used in a question.

When a word has no tone or mark above the word it is said to be neutral and is pronounced in an abbreviated manner with no emphasis.

Neutral

 

 

Rules

 

1. Placement of tone marks

In general, 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. Specifically,

  • Tone marks are placed above a vowel in the order: a – o – e – i – u - ü.

Examples:  xué ( ; study), běi ( 北; north)

  • Place the tone mark on the last one when i and u are together in a syllable.

Examples:  guì (; expensive), jiǔ (九; nine)

  • Drop the dot when a tone mark is placed over i.

Examples:  guì (贵; expensive)

 

2. Syllables With an Initial

  • An initial and a final with no space between them.

Examples:  dà (大; big),  hé (和; and)

Exceptions:

1. When ü and ü group final follow j, q, x, it is written as u but is still pronounced ü, e.g. qù (去; go).

2. When uo follows b, p, m, or f, u is dropped, e.g. 末 mò (end).

3. When iou, uei, uen are preceded by an initial, they are written as iu, ui, un respectively, jūn (军; army).

 

3. Syllables Without an Initial

  • Syllables starting with "a", "o" or "e"

Just the final. Examples:  ài (爱; love),    ēn (恩; favor).

  • Syllables starting with "i"

Replace "i" with "y". Examples:  yǎn (眼; eye), yá (牙; tooth).

Exceptions:         

1. For the single vowel "i", and the nasals "in" and "ing", "y" is added before "i", resulting in "yi", "yin", and "ying", e.g. yī (一;      one)

2. Use "you" for "iu", e.g.  yǒu (有; have).

  • Syllables starting with "u"

Replace "u" with "w". Examples: wán (完; finish), wáng (王; king)

Exceptions:

1. For the single vowel "u", "w" is added before "u", resulting in "wu".

2. Spell "wen" for "un";

3. Spell "wei" for "ui".

  • Syllables starting with "ü"

Replace "ü" with "yu". Examples: yǔ ( (雨; rain).

4. R-ending

  • The "er" (儿) sound can follow finals to form retroflection, add "r" at the end of the syllable in this case.

Example: xiǎo hái er (小孩儿; little kids ).

 

5. Using Apostrophe

  • When one syllable ends in a vowel and the next syllable begins with a vowel, an apostrophe is used to indicate the vowels belong to two syllables.

Example: Xī ’ān (西安; the name of the city).