In my post ‘Chinese basics kept basics’ I outlined the basic premises of Mandarin Chinese as a language. Today my plan is to develop on a crucial element of my previous explanations, which are Chinese tones. Mandarin has four tones whilst Cantonese has six, and as Chinese is a tonal language the meaning of words is heavily dependant on the speaker’s ability to speak with the correct intonation. In practice this means that saying a character with the incorrect tone could convey a completely different meaning to whatever it is that you had wanted to say. Since Chinese has no alphabet, tones really are crucial in identifying what a person is trying to convey.
I created this post roughly two weeks ago but I guess you could say that I was experiencing some ‘technical difficulties’, which prevented me from sharing. A while ago someone suggested that I embed audio into one of my older posts so that you can hear what characters sound like. For learning tones it would be particularly beneficial for you to listen to the changes in tone and recognise the differences for yourself. However, (here comes the sad part) after doing some research I realised that I cannot embed audio clips into my posts because of my account type (将来我可能给大家听). 对不起. It’s unfortunate because I had prepared recordings of my teacher saying the different tones for the characters of ‘ma’ for you to listen to. So I do apologise for not being able to share. Instead I can elaborate on the tones without the direct audio clips (but you can listen to the tones with the links provided at the end).
The most widely used example of listening to tones is with the pinyin ‘ma’. Below I have listed five of the ‘ma’ characters that all have different meanings. You may notice that most of the characters have the 马 radical in common; meaning ‘horse’. Indeed this provides the characters with the central pinyin sound of ‘ma’, but in spoken Mandarin the tones are what signify the meaning, as you cannot examine the radicals when speaking Mandarin. The tones are the symbols you can see above the first vowel in a pinyin word.
1. 吗 ma – Question particle, which is added to the end of a sentence to indicate a simple question. (你好 meaning ‘hello’ becomes ‘how are you?’ when you add 吗 to the end. 你好吗?). This is known as the ‘neutral tone’ because tone above the letter and so you can read it without special intonation.
2. 妈 mā – Mother
3. 麻 má – Hemp
4. 马 mǎ – Horse
5. 骂 mà – Scold
Now that I think about it, it’s interesting to see that the word for (妈) ‘mother’ is comprised of the radicals ‘female’ and ‘horse’ and I wonder why that is. A number of Chinese characters include animal radicals as they reflect early agriculture, so of course each character has it’s own back story. Chinese radicals have always inspired me, so I shall take this opportunity to develop my sudden rumination…If you look at the first character you can see that the radical accompanying ‘horse’ is a square, which means ‘mouth’. So I am assuming that the idea of a horse using its mouth to speak is what came to indicate a ‘question’. This is developed in the fifth character where we can observe two mouth radicals on top of the horse radical. So when a horse asks too many questions it is taken as a curse? (here cursing refers to using foul language and not the practice of Witchcraft). And then of course we return to mother. You don’t have to take my ideas in this matter as the truth, but there are many Chinese forums where Chinese speakers offer their reasoning behind the stories of characters, and that is merely what I have done. Have you got your own ideas behind the characters’ stories? In order to learn the more accurate reasoning behind the composition of characters we must turn to researching etymology (which is quite fun, especially in Chinese) but I have already digressed so we shall leave that for some other time.
Simply put: the first tone is flat, the second tone causes your voice to raise slightly, the third tone rises and drops and the last tone drops. I have shown you this before but this graph demonstrates the fluctuation quite precisely.
The first tone sounds like when you have to open your mouth when you visit the Doctor and say ‘aaah’. The second tone sounds similar to how your voice raises when you say something in surprise. The third tone sounds a bit strange and can be funny to practice. Your voice seems to bend as it raises and drops, for example when you see something really cute ‘awww’. Lastly we are left with the fourth tone that causes your intonation to drop. The fourth tone can be heard in practice when you are angry, for example if you replied to someone ‘’they did what!?”.
Chinese tones are not easy to master so if you want to learn them properly, it would be helpful for you to practice saying them and also listening to them. I will keep the audios I recorded of my teacher and one day you will be able to hear them! But till then I have found a few useful links that will allow you to listen to the tones. This first video is fairly short and the speaker uses the example of ‘ma’, so you can reference the characters I have listed above https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm37kO4lOJQ. Here’s another useful video that I included in my previous post, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wV8B4bx1lM. The video is comparatively longer in duration to the previous link, but the speaker presented the tones effectively by relating them to intonations we speak with everyday. For example saying ‘what??’ in surprise is similar to speaking in the second tone. This final link is not a video, but I found it by chance and I’m sure you would find it useful; https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-pinyin-chart.php. It is a chart of pinyin words and letters that you can scroll over to listen to the different tones (also ties in with pronunciation).
Last week I decided to do a past paper for my exam and when marking it with my teacher my marks fell short in the Listening section of the exam. A few marks were lost due to being unable to differentiate between the tones (also I think the speaker’s accent was not in my favour 嘿嘿) therefore mastering tones is a collective battle.
If you want to learn Mandarin tones, good luck 世界。
从欣妍 – From Xinyan.
☆Edit: I was going through some Chinese revision/playing cards I own and coincidentally, the second card I picked up was explaining the tones and even gave the example of ‘ma’. I have taken a photo of the card and inserted it at the start of the post, enjoy 🙂