Sounds of standard Chinese

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The tones of standard Chinese ( Chinese  四聲  /  四声 , Pinyin sì shēng  - "four tones") are a characteristic of the standard Chinese language .

The four tones of standard Chinese

With the property of a tonal language , a change in tone is also associated with a change in the meaning of the word. Standard Chinese has four such tones; the neutral tone is sometimes counted fifth.


The standard Chinese syllables are pronounced with a tonal change, which makes it possible to distinguish them and take on completely different meanings. A pronunciation without correct intonation usually leads to the speaker not being understood. The pronunciations of the two words Běijīng ( 北京  - "Beijing") and bèijǐng ( 背景  - "background") can only be distinguished by their tonal values.

The following example is used to illustrate this:

媽媽 罵 麻 馬 嗎?  /  妈妈 骂 麻 马 吗?
Māma mà má mǎ ma?
Does the mother scold the hemp horse?

This sentence contains all the tones of standard Chinese.

Many other Chinese languages have more than four tones, Cantonese z. B. has nine tones. In contrast to Cantonese, there are no relative dependencies in pronunciation, a single syllable indicates the tone, a relative delimitation to the following syllables is not necessary.


The tones are divided as follows:

First note

1st tone

1st tone 第一聲  /  第一声 , dì-yī shēng

Traditional name: 陰平  /  阴平 , yīn píng  - " Yin level"

The pitch of the high tone is constant and high, the tone almost sung instead of spoken. The tone strength is constant. This tone is represented by a bar above the vowel.

Example: 今天 星期一 , jīntiān xīngqīyī  - “Today is Monday”.

Second tone

2nd tone

2nd tone 第二聲  /  第二声 , dì-èr shēng

Traditional name: 陽平  /  阳平 , yáng píng  - " Yang level"

The pitch of the rising tone rises from the lower to middle to the high pitch, similar to the intonation of a question in German. It's about 10 percent shorter than the first note. The tone strength increases as the syllable progresses. It is represented by an acute .

Example: 人民 銀行  /  人民 银行 , rénmín yínháng  - "Bank of the People (People's Bank)".

Third tone

3rd tone

3rd tone 第三聲  /  第三声 , dì-sān shēng

Traditional name: 上聲  /  上声 , shǎng shēng  - "rising tone"

With the falling-rising tone , the pitch sinks down from the middle level and usually rises again to the middle level. Exceptions occur here due to clay sandhis (see below). It is about 15 to 20 percent longer than the first tone and therefore the tone with the longest tone duration. The tone strength is loudest at the beginning, then falls and rises a little at the end of the syllable. He is represented by a hatschek .

Example: 你 也 可以 , nǐ yě kěyǐ  - "You can do that too".

Fourth tone

4th tone

4th tone 第四聲  /  第四声 , dì-sì shēng

Traditional name: 去聲  /  去声 , qù shēng  - "leaving tone"

The pitch falls sharply downwards and the syllable is pronounced shorter with more affect, comparable to the German accentuation of a command (e.g. Geh! ). It has a tone duration that is around 20 to 25 percent shorter than the first tone, making it the shortest full tone. The sound level drops sharply. It is represented by a grave accent .

Example: 抱歉 , 再見  /  抱歉 , 再见 , bàoqiàn, zàijiàn  - "Sorry, goodbye".

Neutral tone

The neutral (5th) tone is usually not counted:

Neutral tone ( 輕聲  /  轻声 , qīng shēng  - "light tone")

The falling tone sounds short and light and is therefore often not regarded as a separate tone. It has less than 50 percent of the duration of the first tone and extremely low strength.

The neutral tone often occurs with polysyllabic words where the second syllable is pronounced less strongly than the first. So 媽媽  /  妈妈 is spoken as māma , the neutral tone occurs here in the second syllable, although both stand for the same character. It is usually shown without a tone above the vowel. Since the spelling reform of 2012 in dictionaries, the light tone may be designated by a center point in front of the syllable (· ma). In the past, the light tone was sometimes represented by a point (ȧ) or ring (å) on the vowel (rarely: the syllable nasal).


A common example to illustrate the difference in Chinese is to compare the syllable ma and their different meanings depending on the tone:

1st tone (consistently high level):  /  ,  - "mother"
2nd tone (tone rising from the middle level): ,  - "hemp"
3rd tone (sinks from the almost middle tone down and then rises a little stronger):  /  ,  - "horse"
4th tone (sharply falling tone):  /  ,  - "scold"

Unstressed syllable:

Neutral (also 5th) tone (unstressed, evenly low):  /  , ma ( question particle )

Audio file / audio sample The pronunciations of the four tones with the syllable "ma" to listen to ? / i

As the example shows, pronouncing the correct tone is compulsory, since it is only through it that a correct meaning is given; the pronunciation of the syllables is quite variable depending on the speaker - the tone, however, is always the same. A rudimentary comparison is the difference in meaning in German for the four words Leder, Luder, Lader, Lieder , with a shift in the first vowel.


For didactic reasons, among other things, it is necessary to display the sounds. In addition to the explicit designation by the name of the tone, an identification using a tone form or an indexing of the tones is a common means.

Clay form

Pitch and change

The Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren developed a system for notating tones. He divided the pitch into five levels, with 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. The tone change can be represented as a tone form by linking the numbers. That's why you write for Mandarin

  1. first tone / 55 /
  2. second tone / 35 /
  3. third tone / 214 /
  4. fourth tone / 51 /
  5. neutral tone / 11 /

The at Tonsandhis occurring semi-third tone can be represented by / 21 / (see below).

This form is used, among other things, for descriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet .


Many romanizations such as Pinyin , MPS II, and Tongyong Pinyin use diacritical marks above the vowels to represent the tones. The Zhuyin transcription also uses diacritical marks. In the romanization Wade-Giles , however, a superscript number is usually used at the end of the syllable to indicate the tone.

In the rarely used Romanization Gwoyeu Romatzyh , the tones are not represented by additional characters outside the syllable, but the syllable is expanded with letters. So for the above syllable “ma” is represented with the first tone as mha , with the second tone as ma .

The tone signs are often left out, however, because for native speakers a pronunciation emerges from the context of meaning and people who do not speak the language are usually not able to pay attention to the tones during pronunciation.

The transcriptions generally do not deal with the occurrence of tone sandhis (see below) - the reader is required to determine the correct tone value himself.


Like other Chinese languages has the high-Chinese over Tonsandhis , can occur in the context-dependent sound changes. A subsequent syllable can influence the original tone value of a syllable (root tones).

Tonsandhi of the third tone

Representation of the half-third tone with the following syllable in the 1st, 2nd or 4th tone
  • If a syllable in the third tone is followed by another syllable in the third tone, the preceding syllable is often pronounced in the second tone. If several syllables appear in the third tone immediately after one another, the first syllables can be pronounced in different variations.
(nǐ) (hǎo) is pronounced with ní hǎo and
(lǎo) (Lǐ)  /  (mǎi) (hǎo) (jiǔ) can to
  • láo Lī mǎi háo jiǔ ,
  • láo Lí mǎi háo jiǔ ,
  • láo Lǐ mái háo jiǔ or
  • láo Lí mái háo jiǔ
become, depending on the grouping of syllables and speaking speed (according to Cheng Chin-chuan): "Old Li buys good wine".
  • If a syllable in a different tone than the third follows a syllable in the third tone, the preceding syllable is pronounced in the half-third tone, ie after falling, the gradient is omitted.
(lǎo)  /  (shī)
(nǔ) (lì)

Tonsandhi from (bù)

The syllable (“not”) has the fourth tone as the root tone, which is spoken as the second tone if another syllable follows in the fourth tone: Examples:

(bù) (hǎo)
but (bú) (shì)

Tonsandhi from (yī)

  • If the Chinese number (“one”) is followed by a syllable in the fourth or neutral tone, is spoken in the second tone.
(yí) (lù)
(yí)  /  (ge)
  • If 一 is followed by a syllable in the first, second or third tone, is spoken in the fourth tone.
(yì) (tiān)
(yì) (nián)
(yì) (wǎn)
  • If does not act solely as a determiner of the following word or if 一 is at the end of a sentence, is spoken in the first tone
(dì) (yī)  /  (gè)
(sān) (shí) (yī)

More Tonsandhi apparitions

The numbers  - "Seven" and  - "Eight" are similarly spoken by many speakers before a fourth tone in the second tone, before other tones in the fourth tone and isolated in the first tone.

Entry tone

North Chinese once had a fifth tone called the "entry tone" ( 入聲  /  入声 , rù shēng ), which was also used in other Chinese languages. It is still preserved in the Jin language . This entry tone is a tone of very short duration and ends with a consonant or crackling sound. Its sound is described as " like an arrow striking a wooden board ". However, this tone does not exist in modern standard Chinese. In South Chinese, for example, the Cantonese language also has the "entry tone".


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. P. 45.