Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't get toned out...

My Chinese professor always commended my reading and writing skills, but I struggled when it came to speaking. Chinese language has four tones and it took me a while to get used to them. If said with a different tone, the same word can mean something completely different. The most common example is:

1st tone: (): mother

2nd tone: (): hemp

3rd tone: (mǎ): horse

4th tone: (): scold

Now you don’t want to call your mom a horse or the other way around (unless you are a horse of course).

Using the wrong tone can also get you into trouble (or maybe not depending on how it ends). Look at the following two meanings for wen:

(wěn): kiss

(wèn): ask

Make sure that you don’t say “Can I kiss you?” to someone when you meant to say “Can I ask you?”

To complicate things even more:

(wěn): kiss

(wěn): cut one’s throat

I know both of them have the same tone.


  1. I imagine the tones are the hardest part of learning Chinese.

    So how does one differentiate between "kiss" and "cut one's throat"? Is it simply based on context?

  2. Yes. And sometimes you can also get away without using the right tones. But there are always some people who will refuse to understand you unless you use the right tone.

  3. You say that chinese have a limited number of sounds(400 sounds),even whit the the use of tones(1200 posible sounds) and that will cause confusion if written in pinyin,because alot of chinese words whit different meanings will be written identical.The solution could be the use of combination of big and small letters.For example a word made from 2 letters(like HE) could have 4 posible combinations decided by convention:he,HE,hE.He.The word whit many sounds could have even more posible combinations.Word HUANG could be written as:huang,Huang,hUang,huAng,huaNg,huanG,HUang,HuAng,HuaNg,HuanG,hUAng,hUaNg,hUanG,HUAng,huANG,HUANG,HUANg,HUaNG and so one in at least 36 combinations for a word whit 5 letters.The more sounds a word has,the more posible combinations.But even simple 2 letter words can have 4 different meanings.Such conventions could be easily created for problematic words

  4. as for wen could be:wen(kiss),wEn(cut throat)

  5. That is definitely an interesting way of differentiating the four tones. I never thought about it that way.

    Pinyin already has four different symbols to different the tones. For example mā, má, mǎ and mà.

  6. that combination of big and small letter is used only for the words whit identical tonal and letter spelling and when the context is not accessible.If the tonal are different then is no need for big and small letters.If huâng is identical whit another word huâng(to mean a different thing,just for the sake of argument)Than diferentiation will be huâng and huÂng,or hUâng,or huâNg.

  7. I think the 5th tone (Neutral tone) is just as important to be mentioned. I am now beginning to hear a lot of 5th tones given the 2nd tone which makes it terrible to listen to.
    One such word is :Remember - ji4de5
    I hear it pronounced ji4de2