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Please use this web-based forum discussion board to ask beginning and advanced technical questions and make comments. We hope some people can answer and help those in need. Anything relating to computers is appropriate. You may post html in this forum.

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More on tones in Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. This seems to cause a lot of foreign students headaches. This is an attempt to explain a few of these tonal relations in an effort to clarify things and hopefully make studies easier (although some readers may be even more confused afterwards) or at least increase students’ awareness and understanding of the problem.

1. The half third tone
This is not an academic term, strictly speaking. Let’s just put it in a very simple way: the typical “third tone”, if you were to draw it, looks like a “right tick”, with its right side much longer than the left. But most of these typical third tones of Mandarin almost never sound like the “third tone” you have learned from your textbook. They sound as if they stop when reaching the bottom with just a very little bit of an upturn. If you were to draw this tone on paper, it would look like it lost most of its right side as compared to the typical third tone.
Similarities then exist to the fourth tone which is a plain falling one, too. But both fall from different heights. And please note that the third tone will oftentimes keep a small curling tail which is hard to notice even for native speakers but it definitely exists

2. The most popular tone
A lot of Mandarin students may feel that the Chinese language may sounds harsh, always as if people are arguing, quarrelling, or giving orders.
The reason is simple. When English speakers and speakers of most other languages want to be harsh or give orders etc. they use falling tones as if they were to say NO!! STOP!! which is actually similar to the fourth tone of Chinese.
Now, for historical and random reasons there are many more syllables carrying the fourth tone than the other four tones (including the neutral tone) in Chinese. According to StudyHSK’s statistics, there are 2,495 fourth tone characters among a standard list of 6,727 characters (GB2312 National Standard List of Chinese Characters with PinyinGB2312 汉字拼音对照表), representing 37%.

3. Homophones
There are 416 syllables in Pinyin, and if you distinguish by tones as well, there are 1,302 syllables (same syllable but different tone including the neutral tone). There are, however, many more for English (some say around 4,030). Therefore, Mandarin has the potential to confuse many students as words may have a tendency to sound very similar.

Best wishes,

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