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【Learn Chinese】What are Mandarin Tone Changes?
Tone changes in Mandarin are referred to as 变调规则 (biàndiào guīzé) in Chinese. They’re also sometimes called tone sandhi, which is a general term used by linguists to describe tone changes that occur in response to the way adjacent words or syllables are pronounced.
Tone changes in Mandarin Chinese are contextual. Chinese characters all have their own “original” tones, but when placed next to other characters, some of these original tones can change.
The 3 most important Mandarin tone change rules:
Some tone changes are optional, while others are obligatory. The three most important mandatory tone change rules are listed below:
1. Third tone changes
The third tone is one of the hardest tones to master. This is perhaps because it almost never appears in its original form as a dipping tone, except when pronounced in isolation. When the third tone is combined with other characters, it almost always undergoes a tone change.
The basic mandatory rules for tone changes involving the third tone are:
When two consecutive third tones appear in a group, the first third tone changes to a second tone. This phenomenon happens frequently. The most famous example occurs in the Chinese greeting 你好 (nǐhǎo), which is the first Chinese word most students learn. As third tone characters, both 你 (nǐ) and 好 (hǎo) are pronounced with a dipping third tone in isolation. Because of this tone change rule, 你好 is pronounced “níhǎo.” However, the pinyin for 你好 is still written nǐhǎo.
If several third tones appear in a row, only the last one in the group is actually pronounced as a third tone. The others change to second tones. For example, the name of the popular Chinese cold medicine 999 contains a series of three third tones (九九九 jiǔjiǔjiǔ). When pronounced, though, the first two third tones will change to second tones so that the name actually becomes “jiújiújiǔ.”
When used almost anywhere except after another third tone or by itself, the third tone is pronounced as a low tone that falls slightly without rising again. In other words, when it comes after the first, second or fourth tone. So, the third tone is a low-guttural tone the majority of the time.
These third tone changes may sound complex and hard to remember. It may help to simply realize that as a result of these changes, the most common pronunciation of the third tone in practice is actually as a low, slightly falling tone, not as a dipping tone.
2. Tone changes with 不 (bù)
The next obligatory tone change rule involves the commonly used character 不 (bù) which means “not” or “no” in Chinese:
The original tone of the character 不 (bù) is fourth tone. When followed by another fourth tone, however, 不 (bù) is pronounced as a second tone. For example, the official pinyin for 不对 (bùduì; incorrect) consists of two consecutive falling tones. However, when pronounced, the tone of 不 (bù) changes to a rising second tone. Therefore, the actual pronunciation of 不对 is “búduì.”
In all situations aside from the one outlined above, 不 (bù) maintains its original fourth tone.
3. Tone changes with 一 (yī)
Another commonly used character that’s subject to frequent mandatory tone changes is 一 (yī), which is the Chinese character meaning “one.”
Like 不 (bù), 一 (yī) is a Mandarin word that Chinese speakers use on a regular basis. Its original tone, which is the flat or level first tone, is most commonly used when pronounced in isolation. 一 (yī) also retains its original flat tone when being used as an ordinal number or as a regular number appearing in everyday contexts like addresses and dates.
Otherwise, the following mandatory tone change rules apply:
When followed by a fourth tone, 一 (yī) changes from first tone to second tone. In this way, it behaves a bit like 不 (bù). For example, in the common construction 一个 (yīgè), which means one (of something), 一 (yī) is followed by a fourth tone. Therefore, as a result of this tone change rule, the pronunciation will change to “yígè.”
If 一 (yī) comes before anything other than a fourth tone, it changes from first tone to fourth tone. For example, in the common construction 一起 (yīqǐ), 一 (yī) is followed by a second tone and therefore changes to the fourth tone when pronounced, becoming “yìqǐ.”