Tones, meaning?

October 21, 2012, 12:03 PM posted in General Discussion

Do the tones in pinyin have any meaning?

In the audiolession you guys were joking around about the tones a lot, like the fourth tone (dà) sounding mad or even a bit hostile.

Do the tones actually have any meaning? Do they confer any certain emotion to the syllable?


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October 21, 2012, 05:22 PM

No, the tones have no meaning by themselves and do not confer any specific emotion. They are just phonetic elements which help to distinguish between words which otherwise would sound the same. Consider some examples:

四 (sì, four), 六 (liù, six), 睡觉(shuìjiào, to sleep) 再见 (zàijiàn, goodbye), 饭店 (fàndiàn, restaurant), 谢谢 (xièxie, thankyou) ...

All of these words have the 4th tone, but there is no common meaning or emotion to them.

In some cases, the tone in Mandarin matches the way we Westerners usually pronounce a certain word. For example the difference between 哪 (nǎ, which?) and 那 (nà, that!) is similar to the difference between a question and a statement in English. But this is only a mnemonic for a specific case, not a general rule.

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October 21, 2012, 05:28 PM

Hi samknutsson

Yes, the tones determine meaning. The same syllable means four quite different words, depending on which of the four tones are used. 

The four tones don't convey emotion - it is just that it may sound that way to a foreigner. 

Of course, your tone of voice can change the meaning too, just as it does with any language. And raising your voice at the end of a sentence can indicate a question, as it does in English. But this 'tone of voice', and raising your voice at the end of a sentence, is not what we mean by 'tones' in Chinese. Check out all the lessons here on tones. 

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October 21, 2012, 05:42 PM

Thank you both for taking time to respond, really appreciate it.

I suspected that the tones in themselves wouldn't be categories for words connoting specific emotions. Although it would be helpful in learning mandarin from the beginning through pinyin, I was hoping I was wrong :)