The significance of tones:

Syllables with the same initials and finals, but with different tones may have completely different meanings. Sometimes what you say is not as important as the tone you say it with.

妈 (mother)

麻 (numb)


马 (horse)

骂 (to scold)


一 (one)

移 (to move)


椅 (chair)

亿 (100 000 000)


Several syllables with the same initials, same finals and same tones may have different meanings. In these cases, the meaning of the word is most easily identified by the Chinese character in the written, and by the context in the spoken language.


机 (machine)

基 (base)

鸡 (chicken)

击 (to attack)

The neutral tone:

Some syllables have a neutral tone, e.g. 了 (le)

Syllables with a neutral tone are pronounced short and without stress. No tone indicator is written on top of the main vowel.

Modulation of tones:

1. Some syllables that originally had tones can also “lose” their tone when at the end of a compound word.


东 (east)



西 (west)


东西 (thing)


Note that “西” in “东西” is pronounced with a neutral tone.

2. When a syllable with third tone is immediately followed by another third tone syllable, the tone of the first syllable changes to second tone.


你 (you)


好 (good)



你好 (hello)


Note that “你” in “你好” is pronounced with second tone. Also, this change is normally not indicated in the pīnyīn, we only did it for the example to make sense. From now on, we will not indicate this tone change in the pīnyīn, but it still must be made when pronouncing the word. 

That’s about it for now. So remember, when you are speaking Chinese, every syllable has its own tone. In most European languages, the intonation goes up before a comma, or at the end of an interrogative sentence. In Chinese, it goes up when there is a word with second tone. Do not try to implement the tones of your own language into Chinese. Time to take a look at the table with the possible combination of initials and finals in pŭtōnghuà.

Recommend this article

moreChinese Culture