Language and Humor

Chinese Tones

Every syllable of every word in languages like Mandarin Chinese and Thai have pitch patterns that are part of the correct pronunciation and that contrast with other words that have the same consonant and vowel sounds but different tones.

The range of the pitches is relative to the highest and lowest pitches of each speaker’s normal speaking voice.

Mandarin / Pu3tong1hua4 普通话 (trad.: 普通話 )

In Mandarin, tones are called sheng1diao4 声调 (traditional: 聲調 ) or “four tones” si4sheng1 四声 (traditional: 四聲 ).

Pitch Contours of Mandarin Tones
Vocal
Pitch Range
1st Tone
High Level
55
2nd Tone
High Rising
35
3rd Tone
Low Falling-Rising
214a
4th Tone
High Falling
51b

Note: Numbers for Mandarin tone contours (e.g., “55” for high level) are from the work of linguist Yuen Ren CHAO 趙元任·赵元任 (1892–1982). There is also a 5th, neutral, tone that varies depending on the preceding syllable.

  • a3rd tone usually falls and stops (21) but falls and rises when no syllable follows (214). Also, before another 3rd-tone syllable, 3rd tone shifts to 2nd tone (35).
  • b4th tone (51) falls quickly and is very short in duration. In rapid speech it usually only falls to medium pitch (53) before stopping.
5 Very High             
4 High                 
3 Medium                 
2 Low                 
1 Very Low                  
Mandarin Tones
Tone NameTone No. & DiacriticEnvironmentPitch ContourContour Nos.

Note: Numbers for Mandarin tone contours (e.g., “55” for high level) are from the work of linguist Yuen Ren CHAO 趙元任·赵元任 (1892–1982).

  • aBefore another 3rd-tone syllable, 3rd tone shifts to 2nd tone.
  • b4th tone (51) is very short in duration. In rapid speech it usually only falls to medium pitch (53) before stopping.
1st tone or
high level
yin1ping2
阴平
(trad.: 陰平 )

1
(e.g., ma1)

macron ( ¯ )
(e.g., )

allstarts at very high pitch (5), stays flat (5), long duration55
2nd tone or
high rising
yang2ping2
阳平
(trad.: 陽平 )

2
(e.g., ma2)

acute ( ´ )
(e.g., )

allstarts at medium pitch (3), rises to very high pitch (5)35
3rd tone or
low falling-rising
shang3sheng1
上声
(trad.: 上聲 )

3
(e.g., ma3)

caron ( ˇ )
(e.g., )

standard 3rd tone: before a pause or the end of a sentencestarts at low pitch (2), falls to very low pitch (1), and rises to high pitch (4), long duration214
half-3rd tone: before a syllable other than another 3rd toneastarts at low pitch (2), falls to very low pitch (1), and stops21
4th tone or
high falling
qu4sheng1
去声
(trad.: 去聲 )

4
(e.g., ma4)

grave ( ` )
(e.g., )

allstarts at very high pitch (5), falls quickly to very low pitch (1)51b
5th / 0th tone or
neutral
qing1sheng1
轻声
(trad.: 輕聲 )

5 or 0
(e.g., ma5 or ma0)

[No diacritic]
(e.g., ma)

after another tonevaries depending on preceding syllable (used with many grammatical words and with endings of many compound words)varies

Cantonese / Jyut6jyu5 粵語 (Mandarin: Yue4yu3)

In Cantonese, tones are called sing1diu6 聲調 (Mandarin: sheng1diao4).

Pitch Contours of Cantonese Tones
Vocal
Pitch Range
1st Tone
High
Level
55a
2nd Tone
High
Rising
25 (35)
3rd Tone
Mid
Level
33
4th Tone
Low
Falling
21 (11)
5th Tone
Low
Rising
23 (13)
6th Tone
Low
Level
22

Note: Numbers for Cantonese tone contours (e.g., “55” for high level) are from the work of linguist Yuen Ren CHAO 趙元任·赵元任 (1892–1982).

aIn some areas the 1st tone has two forms: high level (55) and high falling (53). In other areas high falling has merged into high level (55).

5 Very High               
4 High                  
3 Medium              
2 Low             
1 Very Low                 
Cantonese Tones (Jyutping System)
Tone NameTone No.EnvironmentPitch ContourContour Nos.

Note: Numbers for Cantonese tone contours (e.g., “55” for high level) are from the work of linguist Yuen Ren CHAO 趙元任·赵元任 (1892–1982). Numbers in [square brackets] are other linguists’ analyses.

  • aIn some areas the 1st tone has two forms: high level (55) and high falling (53). In other areas high falling has merged into high level (55).
  • bWords in [square brackets] are the Mandarin pronunciations of the Cantonese tone names.
1st tone or
high levela
jam1ping4 陰平 [yin1ping2]b
1
(e.g., maa1)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at very high pitch (5), stays flat (5)55a
when ending in a
stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)
starts at very high pitch (5), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant5
2nd tone or
high rising
jam1soeng5 陰上 [yin1shang4]
2
(e.g., maa2)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), rises to very high pitch (5)25
[35]
3rd tone or
mid level
jam1heoi3 陰去 [yin1qu4]
3
(e.g., maa3)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at medium pitch (3), stays flat (3)33
when ending in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)starts at medium pitch (3), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant3
4th tone or
low falling
joeng4ping4 陽平 [yang2ping2]
4
(e.g., maa4)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), falls to very low pitch (1)21
[11]
5th tone or
low rising
joeng4soeng5 陽上 [yang2shang4]
5
(e.g., maa5)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), rises to medium pitch (3)23
[13]
6th tone or
low level
joeng4heoi3 陽去 [yang2qu4]
6
(e.g., maa6)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), stays flat (2)22
when ending in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)starts at low pitch (2), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant2
Cantonese Tones (Yale System)
Tone NameTone No.EnvironmentPitch ContourContour Nos.

Note: Numbers for Cantonese tone contours (e.g., “55” for high level) are from the work of linguist Yuen Ren CHAO 趙元任·赵元任 (1892–1982). Numbers in [square brackets] are other linguists’ analyses.

  • aIn some areas the 1st tone has two forms: high level (55) and high falling (53). In other areas high falling has merged into high level (55).
  • bWords in [square brackets] are the Mandarin pronunciations of the Cantonese tone names.
1st tone or
high levela
jam1ping4 陰平 [yin1ping2]b
1
(e.g., ma1)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at very high pitch (5), stays flat (5)55a
7th tone or
high level, clipped
jam1jap6 陰入 [yin1ru4]
7
(e.g., mak7)
when ending in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)starts at very high pitch (5), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant5
2nd tone or
high rising
jam1soeng5 陰上 [yin1shang4]
2
(e.g., ma2)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), rises to very high pitch (5)25
[35]
3rd tone or
mid level
jam1heoi3 陰去 [yin1qu4]
3
(e.g., ma3)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at medium pitch (3), stays flat (3)33
8th tone or
mid level, clipped
zung1jap6 中入 [zhong1ru4]
8
(e.g., mak8)
when ending in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)starts at medium pitch (3), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant3
4th tone or
low falling
joeng4ping4 陽平 [yang2ping2]
4
(e.g., mah4)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), falls to very low pitch (1)21
[11]
5th tone or
low rising
joeng4soeng5 陽上 [yang2shang4]
5
(e.g., mah5)
only ends in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), rises to medium pitch (3)23
[13]
6th tone or
low level
joeng4heoi3 陽去 [yang2qu4]
6
(e.g., mah6)
when ending in a vowel or nasal (-m, -n, -ng)starts at low pitch (2), stays flat (2)22
9th tone or
low level, clipped
joeng4jap6 陽入 [yang2ru4]
9
(e.g., mahk9)
when ending in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -k)starts at low pitch (2), flat, and ends abruptly with unreleased stop consonant2