2 Pinyin and tones
There are various systems for transcribing Mandarin Chinese into the Latin alphabet. Pinyin (e.g. nǐ hăo for ‘hello’) was adopted as the official system in the People’s Republic of China in 1958 and has since become the standard and most-used form of transcription. This course uses Pinyin in the teaching of pronunciation.
Chinese is a tonal language. In Mandarin Chinese, there are four tones (five if you include the neutral tone). The tone marks are like this:
1st tone: ‾ 2nd tone: ′ 3rd tone: ˇ 4th tone: `
You can also visit the Pronunciation Guide to see a diagram of the four tones.
The tone marks are put over the following single finals: a, o, e, i, u, and ü. Some syllables (e.g. grammar particles or a repeated syllable in a word) do not carry tone marks. For example, the second syllable in ‘xièxie’ (thanks) is low and flat with no stress, known as ‘neutral tone’, hence it is without a tone mark.
Every syllable in isolation has its definite tone. A syllable consists of an initial (like consonants in English, e.g. n, h) and a final (like vowels in English, e.g. i, a, o). Same syllables with different tones have different meanings with different character forms. For example, wáng 王 with the 2nd tone means ‘king’ and is also a common family name, but wàng 忘 with the 4th tone means ‘to forget’. Often, many different characters with different meanings share exactly the same pronunciation. For example, jiàn in zàijiàn (goodbye) is written 见 (to see) whilst at the same time this very sound has more than ten different meanings with different character representations (all pronounced jiàn): 健 (healthy), 建 (to build), 剑 (sword), etc.
Now listen to the four tones pronounced with the initial ‘m’ and final ‘a’ and repeat after each one. Reveal the transcript if you wish, whilst repeating:
Now listen to them again. This time, together with the neutral tone: