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Learning the neutral tone in Mandarin

How many tones are there in Mandarin? Most textbooks will tell you that there are four tones, but then you learn that there is also a neutral tone. Maybe you then see someone online claiming that this means that there are actually five tones. So what is this neutral tone and is it a fifth tone or not?

Let’s go through the basics of what tones are first, just to make sure what we are talking about here. If you’re sure you know what tones are, you can skip the next  section

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What are tones in Mandarin?

The four basic tones of Mandarin are high (first tone), rising (second tone), low (third tone) and falling (fourth tone). What we mean by tone in this case is actually lexical tone, or that how the tone height changes across the syllable is important for what word it is.

If we change the vowel in a word in English, such as changing “bat” to “bit”, we clearly have a different word. In Mandarin, if we change the pitch contour (how tone height changes across the syllable) of a word, it becomes a different word. For example, by changing a high tone to a falling tone, such as to , we go from a word that means “mother” (妈) to a word that means “to scold” (骂). This is as obvious to native speakers of tonal languages as it is that “bat” and “bit” are two different words.

If you think you would benefit from a basic introduction to tones, you can check out The Hacking Chinese guide to Mandarin tones.

The Hacking Chinese guide to Mandarin tones

I have also written individual articles and recorded podcast episodes about the third tone and second tone specifically that you might want to check out.

Does Mandarin have five tones?

Now that we have cleared up what tones are, we are ready to explain why Mandarin has four tones, not five. The neutral tone is not a tone in the same sense as the regular four tones, but rather something that happens to unstressed syllables.

A simple way of explaining it is to say that the neutral tone is in fact the absence of tone, which also explains why it’s a bit silly to count it as the fifth tone.

This doesn’t mean that neutral tones don’t have a specific tone height, but it does mean that pitch is not used to determine what the syllable means. Let’s have a look at how the neutral tone is pronounced and you’ll see what I mean!

How to pronounce the neutral tone in Mandarin

A neutral tone is the absence of a normal tone. Remember, words in Mandarin have an inherent tone that you can’t change more than you can change the vowel of an English word. When a syllable has a neutral tone, it means that whatever the tone normally is for that syllable, it’s no longer important and can be ignored.

The default way of pronouncing neutral tones is determined by the preceding syllable in the following manner:

  1. After a high (first) tone, the neutral tone is lower
  2. After a rising (second) tone, the neutral tone is lower
  3. After a low (third) tone, the neutral tone is higher
  4. After a falling (fourth) tone, the neutral tone is low

One rule of thumb: The neutral tone is pronounced lower, or if you can’t go lower, then as low as the end of the preceding tone.

One exception: After a third tone, the neutral tone is high instead.

Listen to the following examples while looking at the tone diagrams. As you can see and hear, the neutral tone is usually lower than the end of the preceding syllable, except after a third tone, when it’s high instead.

 

bēizi  
杯子
“cup”
(杯子)

First tone + First tone

 

First tone + First tone

 

First tone + First tone

 

First tone + First tone

The neutral tone and intonation

As I have explained above, the pitch of the neutral tone is not inherent in the syllable itself, which is what makes it different from the other tones. We have seen that the default pronunciation is determined by the preceding tone, regardless what the tone would be of the neutral tone if pronounced fully.

The pitch can also come from intonation. Here it’s important to keep track of what words mean! I defined tone above, and it’s different from intonation, which is used to signal attitude, emotion, focus or other things. An example of intonation is going up at the end of questions or when being surprised, which is true in English as well as Mandarin. In these cases, the neutral tone is flexible and takes whatever tone matches the intonation pattern.

This is rather complicated and not something I will go into detail here, but as Joris has pointed out in the comment section, question particles such ase ma (吗) and me (么) are good examples, because they are usually higher than the default form would indicate, because questions tend to rise towards the end, and this particles appear at the very end of questions.

There’s actually even more to show with that same example, though. We can use different kinds of intonation to give a word like shénme (什么, “what”) different functions and therefore also different pitch. Note that the word still means the same thing in all cases; this is intonation, not tone!

  • When you’re genuinely curious and want to know something, such as when saying shénme to make someone repeat what they just said. The me part here is at least as high as the end of shén, not lower as the default rule would be.
  • When you’re greatly surprised by something, you might use shénme to indicate how unbelievable something is. Here the, me is even higher, possible even higher than anything you’d say in normal situations; a 6 on a scale from 1 to 5, as it were.
  • When it’s not a question at all, such as when you don’t know what someone is going on about, wǒ bù zhīdao nǐ zài shuō shénme (我不知道你在说什么). The me here is closer to the default pitch described above, so much lower than the other tow.

If you want more in-depth explanations of not just tones, but all aspects of Mandarin pronunciation, check out Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence. It’s a full video course where I teach you everything you need to know, including not just the sounds and tones, but also how to master them. The course is suitable for anyone who wants to speak Mandarin clearly, regardless if you’re a beginner or more advanced student. Learn more about the course here: Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence

You can also find more examples of tone pairs, including those with the neutral tone in this article, where I sorted all the HSK vocabulary by tone so you can grab the most important ones for practice: Focusing on tone pairs to improve your Mandarin pronunciation

When should you use the neutral tone? How do you know when to use it?

Unfortunately, you can rarely predict when there will be a neutral tone, so this is something you have to learn for each word, just like you need to know if it’s a first, second, third or fourth tone. In that sense, the neutral tone really is a fifth variant you need to memorise, even if it isn’t a fifth tone.

There are some patterns that can help you both remember when to use the neutral tone and sometimes also predict when to use it even for a word you’ve never heard. Here are the most important rules of thumb:

  • The neutral tone only appears at the end of words or between syllables, never at the beginning of words. The vast majority of words in Mandarin have two syllables, and therefore, the most typical case of neutral tone is a two syllable word with the second syllable having a neutral tone. There are other combinations, but they are much rarer. There are no words with a neutral tone on the first syllable.
  • Particles often have the neutral tone, such as 了, 吗 and 的. They are rarely pronounced on their own and their pitch is determined by their surroundings. This also appears in combination with the above point when particles are squeezed between other syllables, as in tīng bu dǒng (听不懂, “I don’t understand”) or kàn de jiàn (看得见, “can see (something)”).
  • Many suffixes typically have the neutral tone, such as 们, 子 or 头. These are very regular, so if you see a word with the noun marker 子, such as 桌子 (zhuōzi, “table”), you can be pretty sure it’s a neutral tone. Of course, this doesn’t mean that that character always has a neutral tone. When it’s not used as a suffix, it’s still a full tone, as in 子女 (zǐnǚ, “sons and daughters; children”). 头 (tóu, “head”) is also neutral in words like 石头 (shítou, “stone”) or 木头 (mùtou, “wood”), but of course not when it’s not used as a suffix, such as in 头疼 (tóuténg, “headache”). You can read more about suffixes here.

Beyond that, you just need to listen to what people say or look words up in a dictionary when you’re not sure, which is a nice segue to the next part.

How are neutral tones in Mandarin written?

There are a few ways of indicating the neutral tone in writing, listed with the most common way first:

  • No tone mark above the main vowel: bēizi
  • With a dot before the syllable: bē·zi
  • With the number five: bei1zi5
  • With the number zero: bei1zi0

For more about how tones are written down and what difference that might make for you as a student, please check 7 ways to write Mandarin tones

7 ways to write Mandarin tones

Neutral tones in Mandarin are “lighter”

In Chinese, the neutral tone is called 轻声 (qīngshēng), literally “light tone”, which is in my opinion a better name for it. While unstressed syllables can be pronounced in many different ways depending on context, they are typically shorter and lighter. A good way to illustrate this is to look at words that have the same syllable repeated twice, first with a full tone and then with a neutral tone. I already showed several examples above, but here’s what bēizi (辈子, “cup”) looks like, with male speaker on the left, and female speaker on the right right):

You don’t really need to know how to read spectrograms to interpret this, you just need to look at the waveform at the top. As you can see, the second syllable is much lighter than the first syllable. In some cases, it’s also shorter, but that’s not always the case.

It’s also worth noting that unstressed syllables often get reduced in other ways than tone. For example, it’s not uncommon to drop parts of the final or change the quality of the vowel.

An example of the first might be someone who says dòùfu (豆腐, “tofu) and partially or entirely remove the u, turning it into douf. An example of the second type might be that particles with -e are pronounced with a relaxed, central vowel similar to the vowel sound  in English words like “the” and “a”, which is not the same sound as when the syllable has a full tone, as in 额 (è, “hungry”) or 热 (, “warm”).

Variation in neutral tones in Mandarin

No discussion about the neutral tone would be complete without raising the issue of regional and individual variation. The most notable difference is that stress in northern dialects of Mandarin is quite different from stress in southern dialects. With different stress patterns follow different frequencies of neutral tones.

This is reflected in the standard language, so words that have a neutral tone in Mainland standard sometimes have full tones in Taiwan standard. Here are a few examples:

  • 喜欢 is xǐhuan in Mainland standard, but xǐhuān in Taiwan standard
  • 先生 is xiānsheng in Mainland standard, but xiānshēng in Taiwan standard
  • 多少 is duōshao in Mainland standard, but duōshǎo in Taiwan standard

People usually don’t follow the standard

It’s also important to understand that most people don’t actually speak Mandarin the way the relevant standards prescribe. This means that in Taiwan, there are in fact many, many more words that are pronounced with full tones than you’d think if you browse through the official dictionary.

Words like yīfu (衣服, “clothes”), piàoliang (漂亮, “pretty” and dōngxi (东西, “thing; stuff”), are actually all listed with neutral tones in the Ministry of Education dictionary, although it’s very common to hear them with full tones in the real world.

In fact, when I wrote this article, I brainstormed some fifty words to check against both standards and almost all of them were the same in both standards, even though I picked only words I know people commonly pronounce with full tones in Taiwan!

This goes in the other direction as well, so in northern China, it’s common for people to reduce more syllables and hence have more neutral tones than the prescribed standard. This leads to a stress pattern that sounds closer to English than Taiwanese Mandarin.

For someone who has learnt Mandarin in northern China, it will sound like Taiwanese people enunciate everything to the point of being silly; and for someone who has learnt mandarin in Taiwan, it will sound like people from Beijing swallow half the syllables and don’t pronounce things “properly”. This can be hard to deal with at first as a student, but you’ll get used to it! 

Learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin

Conclusion: Learning the neutral tone in Mandarin

My goal in this article was to explain how the neutral tone works: how it is pronounced, where it occurs and how you should think about it as a learner. Let’s summarise:

  • The neutral tone is what happens with unstressed syllables, and it’s more the absence of a fixed tone than a fifth tone.
  • The default way of pronouncing the neutral tone is lower than the preceding tone, except after a low tone, when the neutral tone is high instead.
  • The neutral tone is usually indicated by omitting a tone mark, by adding a dot in front of the syllable, or by using the numbers five or zero.
  • Unstressed syllables are reduced in other ways too, so not just the tone disappears or changes!
  • There’s much variation in how prevalent the neutral tone is between different regions and standards, and also how individual people talk.

This is really all you need to know about the neutral tone! With more listening and mimicking, I’m sure you’ll be able to master it. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. And don’t forget to check out my pronunciation course if you want more in-depth explanations of Chinese pronunciation in video format: Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence



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4 comments

  1. Joris says:

    Great article as usual! Just wanted to point out that question particles like 吗 and 么 are also exceptions because they are usually pronounced high, even when preceeded by a high tone: 什么?忙吗?Most likely influened by the nature of prosody in questions.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, good point! I feel I missed a good teaching opportunity here, so thanks for pointing it out! I’ll see if I can add a note to it in the article itself. I didn’t want to go into prosody too much because it gets complicated very quickly, but your example would have been a simple way to illustrate the effect.

  2. Pierre says:

    Hi, even though I’ve been listening to your podcasts for a few months, this is the first time I leave a comment. I wanted to thank you for all the insights you share, and particularly those articles that make me understand things I should have learned from the beginning. And I particularly appreciate that you propose the podcast format, which is so convenient (even though I miss a lot of valuable information like the illustrations provided in this article).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m so happy to hear you find the podcast episodes helpful, and also that you appreciate the effort that goes into producing them! I like podcasts and audio material a lot myself, which is why I started with the podcast. I don’t think everybody loves it, but it’s great to hear from those that do!

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