#2 – The Four Tones in Mandarin

There are four tones in speaking Mandarin:

1. First tone is a high and level sound with the volume held constant, as in the word  mā  妈  https://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Ma-1.mp3  which means mother. The symbol of the first tone’s pronunciation is a straight line  —  placed above the pinyin of 妈  MĀ.

Note that the word for mother 妈 has the symbol for woman 女 on its left and the symbol for 马horse on its right.

2. Second tone rises from middle register and increases in volume, like the pronunciation of a surprised `Me?’ As in the character 麻  https://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Ma-2.mp3  which means numb. The symbol of the second tone’s  pronunciation is a straight line slanting upward from left to right  /  placed above the pinyin of 麻 MÁ.

3. Third tone starts low, then falls lower before rising to a sound higher than the starting point.  As in the character 马  https://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Ma-3.mp3  which means horse.

The symbol of the third tone’s pronunciation is a v placed above the pinyin of  马  MĂ.

4. Fourth tone starts high, then drops sharply, like saying `fine’ when agreeing to an order.  As in the character 骂  https://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Ma-4.mp3  which means to scold. The symbol of the fourth tone’s pronunciation is a short line slanting downwards \  from left to right placed above the pinyin of 骂 MÀ.

Note that the three characters 妈   马    骂  all contain the radical 马。 Their pinyin is MA for all of them but a listener is able to differentiate between them because of their different tones.

2 replies
  1. Pat Swann
    Pat Swann says:

    The subtle difference between first and second tone is so hard for me. I usually end up using my hand to assist Chinese listeners determine what tone I really meant to use, instead of how it comes from my lips!
    In English, tone is used to convey emotion not meaning. Of all things Chinese, I believe tones are the hardest things to learn.

    • adeline
      adeline says:

      Pat, Tones are difficult, even for native Chinese speakers. If you were born in Hongkong, you would speak mandarin with a Cantonese accent. The only way to learn is by repetition.


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