Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Mandarin has five tones

Just a quick thought in passing, I have always considered Mandarin to have five basic tones, not the often quoted four. I guess it comes down to how linguists define tones but four tones + the neutral tone in my mind adds up to five. Not using the neutral tone correctly can make works sound wrong or even change the implied meaning. I appreciate that the neutral tone has more of a role to play in multi-syllable words etc. but come on, surely it is a tone? It adds a similar mental load.

I will admit that Thai "feels" a little more like a five tone language, as the middle flat tone in Thai gets a bit more emphasis and can apply to single syllables in their own right rather than just their position in a certain word or phrase, For me though Mandarin has five tones.

Disclaimer: I am ignoring all the bits and pieces that may happen in speech like third tones that may become second (but not quite second) etc. and any extra tones that may sneak into "near Mandarin" dialects.

Anybody else back five tones???

12 comments:

fbw4 said...

If the only role the neutral tone had to play in Mandarin was in multi-syllable words, then I might be tempted to say that it isn't a fifth tone so much as a protocol for saying certain syllables too quickly to actually enunciate their tones. There's often a lack of consensus between dictionaries and Chinese speakers about which words include a syllable that has slid into neutral tone, and I tend to view this as another case of tone sandhi. The pinyin for 对不起 is usually dui4buqi3, but I could see (and maybe prefer) a protocol where it would be written dui4bu4qi3, with the understanding that the tone of the middle syllable should be so de-emphasized that it should be at most ethereal.

But there are words that are neutral in their base pronunciation - mostly 与妻子. I remember being very unhappy when I was introduced to 吗 and 了 with the instruction that these words don't have any tone at all - that there's some neutral place that exists before the introduction of any tone. What nonsense! If only for these words, the neutral tone must be considered to be a tone.

(I often describe Mandarin as having four-and-a-half tones.)

Keith said...

I will go out on a limb and say that Mandarin doesn't have any tones at all.

Edwin said...

I always consider Mandarin has 5 tones. Good to find someone with the same view :)

Chris said...

Thanks for the comments all, I am now hovering at 4.75 tones ;).

Keith I understand your point, in the spirit of the Matrix "there is no spoon". However if you want to eat a bowl of soup.....

Someone has to take tones into account (writing a speech synthesizer for example) but probably a student can just learn them as part of the pronunciation (implicitly).

Greg said...

Hi Chris

I'm also going to vote for 5 tones.

If you take "glasses" for example, it is yǎn​jìng - yet "eyes" are yǎn​jing​. And yǎn​jī​ng​​ would be wrong - it specifically a neutral tone.

So since neutral is clearly different to first, it must represent its own tone!

Does this push you to 4.87314 tones? :)

Regards
Greg

Linnea said...

I am with you at 5 tones. Originally I was introduced to them as, "These are the tones:" All five of them were included, so I naturally added them up and remembered all five. Only later did a teacher say 4 tones. When I speak with Chinese students about 5 tones, they never find it an arguing point. I think it is simply two ways of communicating. Also with the current trends in tone analysis nowadays, they would definitely report 5 tones. There are tonal languages in Africa that most people familiar with Asian tonal languages would never hear as tonal right away, but because of the rules of combining words/phrases when broken down are clearly tonal. This includes those segments breaking up the tonal phrase or without "tone".

Chris said...

Now moved up to 4.9999999R in my estimation, specially as Chinese people seem to agree it has five (just only 4 of them have numbers).

pinyin master said...

yes, it has five tones. I have struggles with the 2 and 3rd. Most of the time to train my ear I am using the online game called tone master. Highly recommend to Mandarin learners.
http://pinyin.quickmandarin.com/learn_chinese_quiz/tones_drill/

Vanessa said...

Hadn't considered this before. Good point! I agree - Mandarin does have five tones.

ivac said...

We're told that there are 4 tones and a neuter. Didn't know why it's not 5?

Learning the tones was one of the hardest part of learning Chinese for me.

Aihua@KidsChinesePodcast said...

The transliteration of "Neutral tone" should be "light tone", in Chinese called 轻声. So 5 tones.

deutsch-chinesisch said...

I would also agree that Mandarin has five tones. Actually last year when I was in Nanjing, China some Chinese people also told me that in some dialects in China you also have more than five tones. Moreover in many dialects it seems that people change the tones of words...that makes it sooo hard to understand some local dialects...I better stick to mandarin :=)