Posted by: 1of10boyz | June 20, 2012

Tones


When I thought of the things that I have said to my kids, or I was told as a kid, one that really strikes me as a little funny now is related to tones since tone is such a key part of the Chinese language. One of the things I have been told by my “parental units” (just a little tribute there to “Coneheads”) and have told my children is “to watch your tone”. In my case that was because I was probably just a little subordinate in my response and it was the probably the same for my kids.

The scenario would be something related to me or them being just a little frustrated with how things were going and a less than loving conversation ensuing. The words were probably not bad by themselves but the way that they were said didn’t really reflect or inflect the respect that should have been there. That would be followed by the response that would try to show the displeasure related to not being respectful. I think in many cases for me it was as much about being sarcastic and just a little impetuous, but nonetheless I was not showing the respect I should have.

Now that I am butchering the Chinese language and struggling mightily with my tones, I find the “Watch your tone” to be just a little funny. In Chinese the “tone” makes all the difference and may mean that you are actually communicating. The tone is related to each syllable (roughly 410 depending on who you might believe). I now have to “watch my tone” for a whole different reason, I guess that is a little more ironic than it should be. My tone was and appears to continue to be a problem I have to deal with.

For all my non-Chinese friends (or non-speakers) a little lesson on tones and meaning to make my point. (Sorry for the language lesson, I promise I will get to the point.) A fundamental of Mandarin Chinese is there are essentially 4 tones, with an occasional 5th tone just to confuse the rest of us. I have mentally treated the 5th tone kind of like the English vowel “Y” since “Y” is only on special occasions a vowel. The tones are best shown by the following graphic:

Tones

Tone Marks

Descriptions

1st tone –  阴平 high level
2nd tone / 阳平 high rising
3rd tone 上声 low dipping
4th tone 去声 high falling

The 1st tone is a flat high pitch. It would be described more as singing instead of speaking. Based on our chart it would be considered a steady 55 tone ( ā ).

The 2nd tone is a middle rising pitch. It would be pronounced like the end of a question phrase similar to, What?. Based on our chart it would be considered a 35 tone ( á ).

The 3rd tone is a middle to low to high dipping pitch. It would be pronounced a little like you might say, wow. Based on our chart it would be considered a 214 tone ( ǎ ).

The 4th tone is high to low rapidly falling pitch. It would be pronounced like a command similar to, Stop!. Based on our chart it would be considered a 51 tone ( à ).

The 5th tone is the neutral tone.  It occurs on stressless syllables and has a pitch entirely determined by the tones of adjacent syllables. However, a neutral will never act as the starting tone. Neutral tones are usually unmarked.

So now back to my point related to tones. Let’s look at a couple of examples of single syllable words “WEN” and “MA”.

WEN

Tones

Tone Marks

Character

Definition

1st tone

– 

(luke)warm; to review

2nd tone

 /

mosquito

3rd tone

 v

kiss; mouth

4th tone

 \

to ask

5th tone

None for this syllable.

I am sure that you can see some pretty funny “miscommunications” with the wrong tone on this syllable. I might even share some of those little sentences at some point. Now let’s look at our next word.

MA

Tones

Tone Marks

Character

Definition

1st tone

 –

Ma, mama, mum

2nd tone

 /

toad

3rd tone

horse

4th tone

 \

to curse, to revile, to abuse; to scold

5th tone

 

(question tag)(interrogatory particle)

Now if you can’t get the tone right when you are using “ma” you just might get your mouth washed out with soap or a good slap to the head.

I now have a whole new meaning to the old saying. I really do have to “watch your tone” young man!

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