A Mandarin tongue twister

The following tongue twister in Mandarin contains 8 instances of the syllable ma, differentiated only by the tone they bear, as well as one similar syllable (man).

Māma qí mǎ. Mǎ màn. Māma mà mǎ.
Mother rides horse. Horse slow. Mother scolds horse.

The above example is written in pinyin, the official transliteration system for Mandarin. Pinyin uses diacritic marks to distinguish the tones. The diacritic for a tone approximately capture the change in pitch as a speaker produces the tone. The diacritic is written above the vowel (or one of the vowels of a diphthong) although the entire syllable bears the tone.

Tones in Mandarin

Mandarin has 4 tones used for contrast and a neutral tone. They are listed below, together with a numerical representation of the pitch, with 1 being the lowest pitch and 5 being the highest pitch. For example, the numerical representation for tone 1 (55) shows that this tone starts at the highest pitch and stays at that level throughout. The numerical representation for tone 2 shows that it starts at a medium pitch, then rises to the highest pitch.

  • Tone 1: High level (55). Pinyin example: mā
  • Tone 2: Rising (35). Pinyin example: má
  • Tone 3: falling-rising (214). Pinyin example: mǎ
  • Tone 4: high-falling (51). Pinyin example: mà
  • Neutral tone. This is an absence of any inherent contrastive tone. It attaches to some short unstressed syllables following a syllable that does bear one of the 4 contrastive tones. Pinyin example: ma.

As the example shows, the words horse (mǎ) and scold ( mà), and the two syllables of the word for mother (Māma), differ only in tone. (A word containing the same syllable but with tone 2 is , meaning hemp.) Chinese script writes all these words using different characters, and doesn’t mark the tones explicitly.

When I did a couple of years of Mandarin classes, I often found it hard to distinguish tones 2 and 3, in both listening and speaking.

Tones in connected sppech

The numerical values shown above for the tones apply to a syllable spoken in isolation. The values often change in connected speech depending on the tones of the surrounding syllables. This phenomenon is known as tone sandhi. The term Sandhi is from Sanskrit saṃdhí ‘joining’.

One example of tone Sandhi in Mandarin is the treatment of two adjacent tone-3 syllables. The first of these syllables is then pronounced with tone 2. For instance, the common greeting Nǐ Hǎo (literally: you good) contains two syllables that would be pronounced with tone 3 in isolation. But when spoken together, they are pronounced Ní Hǎo, with the first syllable bearing tone 2.

Tone sandhi and ambiguity

Shei (2014) notes that, in rare cases, tone sandhi can resolve ambiguities that are present in written characters. Shei gives the following example. For simplicity, I am showing the tone markings only on one syllable, which is where the contrast shows up, and on the next syllable, which triggers the contrast. Also, to show where the divisions between the syllable groups lie, I have included the square brackets used by Shei (but not included in normal spelling).

  • [pai chu sǔo] [yǒu] [nu zhu guan]
    [police station] [have] [female supervisor]
    There are female supervisors in the local police station.
  • [pai chu] [súo yǒu] [nu zhu guan]
    [dispatch] [all] [female supervisor]
    Dispatch all the female supervisors

In the first version, the syllable you appears at the end of the group and bears tone 3. In the second version, however, that syllable is grouped with the following you (also tone) 3 and thus bears tone 2.

Shei also includes the Chinese characters for this example, which are identical in both versions.

Tones in Cantonese

Although Mandarin has 5 tones, other forms of Chinese have different numbers or forms of tone. For example, Cantonese is generally said to have 9 tones—though Goddard (2005) argues that Cantonese in fact has only 6 contrastive tones (ie tones that can distinguish different words). He states that the other 3 tones are just positional variants in particular environments (allotones).

Goddard lists the following 6 contrastive tones (with examples):

  • High level (55). example: yau, ‘worry’
  • Mid level (33). Example: yau, ‘thin’
  • low level (22). Example: yau, ‘again’
  • High rising (35/25). Example: yau, ‘paint’
  • Low rising (23/13). Example: yau, ‘to have’
  • Low falling (21/11). example: yau, ‘oil’


The Languages of East and Southeast Asia, Cliff Goddard (2005)

Chinese: a Linguistic Introduction, Chaofen Sun (2006)

Understanding the Chinese Language: a comprehensive linguistic introduction, Chris Shei (2014)

A much more detailed description of tone in Mandarin is available in The Sounds of Chinese, Yen-Hwei Lin (2007)

Another tongue twister

I mentioned an Italian tongue twister at Italian tongue twister – Language Miscellany

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