This my reply to the second part of Mike’s email from this morning. He was asking if people could tell the tones of Chinese characters from their written form.

I assume Mandarin doesn’t have this issue (of not being able to tell how syllables are inflected) since each syllable has (one of 5?) inflections: hook, straight, etc. Is that correct?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the orthography of a Chinese character that tells you how to pronounce it. Each character’s tones must be memorized through exposure, mnemonics, or brute force. Making a horrible situation worse, several characters have different pronunciaitons and/or tones depending on what word they are in. Those characters are called pòyīnzì.

ToneDescriptionPitch Contour
1st tonehigh even5-5
2rd tonerising3-5
3rd tonehook2-1-4
4th tonefalling5-1

Once you know what tone each character is, you have to learn a few rules for combining tones. Sometimes tones change based on other tones in nearby syllables. This is called tone sandhi The most common one is when two third tones are next to each other. Normally, third tone words have a “hook” tone that starts at a low pitch, dips down, and then rises again (2-1-4). However, when there are two third tones (2-1-4) together, the first one becomes a second tone (3-5) + (2-1-4). Another very common transformation is when a third tone is followed by a second tone, the rising part of the third tone gets “cropped” (2-1) and the two tones together are (2-1) + (3-5). There are also some words like , the word for “no”, which change tones based on nearby words. Normally 不 is fourth tone, but if it’s followed by a fourth tone it becomes second tone. The number for one, , is first tone when it’s alone, second when followed by a fourth tone, or fourth tone when followed by any other tone. It’s really not as bad as it sounds, but it definitely confuses some lower level students. The shortened third tones are especially easy for beginners to get mixed up.

CombinationOriginal PitchesCombined Pitches
3rd tone + 3rd tone2-1-4, 2-1-43-5, 2-1-4
3rd tone + 2nd tone2-1-4, 3-52-1, 3-5
不 + 4th tone5-1, 5-13-5, 5-1
一 + 4th tone5-5, 5-13-5, 5-1
一 + any other tone5-5, *5-1, *

In Taiwan, it’s especially difficult to tell, since there are many words that most people pronounce differently from what’s in most (local) textbooks. In addition to the differences between which tones Taiwanese people use for words and which tones Taiwanese dictionaries use for tones, there are many words that set the local variant of Mandarin, or Taiwan Guóyŭ, apart from the standard dialect. I’m sure that’s going to mess me up big time if I ever have to use Chinese outside of Taiwan. Despite all of the problems though, at the end of the day I’m still thankful… thankful that I’m not learning Cantonese.

Links: John recently wrote a similar post. The comments on get into a lot more details than I did. Wikipedia also has a good article on this.