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Mandarin tone change rules (tone sandhi)


Once you’ve got the basic tones of Mandarin pinned down (at least in understanding – fluent use takes much longer), you’ll start to notice that they often change.
When and where they change isn’t random – there are specific rules that cause Mandarin tones to change in certain situations. These rules are called tone sandhi.

The number of tone change rules depends on how you count them. This post breaks them down as much as possible, covering four groups with six rules in total.

A symbolic notation is used as an alternative explanation for each rule, as some people find this helpful. In the notation, each syllable is contained in [ ], and numbers 1 to 4 indicate the tone of that syllable.

Rules for 3rd tone

It’s actually unusual that a third tone will sound like the text-book falling-rising sound. If it’s not in isolation, one of these two rules will cause it to change.

1. A 3rd tone followed by another 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone

This might be confusing at first, so here it is phrased differently: when there are two third tones in a row, the first one changes to a second tone.

As symbols:

[3] [3] ⇒ [2] [3]

Examples:

你好 (hello): nǐhǎo ⇒ ‘níhǎo’

很远 (very far): hěnyuǎn ⇒ ‘hényuǎn’

好久 (a long time): hǎojiǔ ⇒ ‘háojiǔ’

2. A 3rd tone becomes a ‘low tone’ if followed by any other tone

Again, this is confusing at first. It’s probably easier to approach these two rules as “if a third tone isn’t on its own, it changes”. This ‘low tone’ is a low-pitch tone that falls slightly.

As symbols:

[3] [!3] ⇒ [low tone] [!3]

(here the ! represents ‘not’)

Examples:

考试 (exam): kǎoshì ⇒ kaoshì

语言 (language): yǔyán ⇒ yuyán

马车 (cart): mǎchē ⇒ machē

(In these examples, italics is used to represent ‘low tone’)

Rules for 一

The character 一 (one) is normally first tone (yī), but this changes in two situations. Note that these two rules for 一 do not apply when it is being read out as part of a figure (in which case it is always first tone).

3. 一 is 2nd tone when followed by a 4th tone

As symbols:

[一] [4] ⇒ [一2] [4]

Examples:

一个 (one …): yī gè ⇒ ‘yí gè’

一半 (one half): yī bàn ⇒ ‘yí bàn’

一步 (one step): yī bù ⇒ ‘yí bù’

4. 一 is 4th tone when followed by a 1st, 2nd or 3rd tone

As symbols:

[一] [1 | 2 | 3] ⇒ [一4] [1 | 2 | 3]

(here the | represents ‘or’)

Examples

一般 (normally): yībān ⇒ ‘yìbān’

一直 (continuously): yīzhí ⇒ ‘yìzhí’

一起 (together): yīqǐ ⇒ ‘yìqǐ’

A rule for 不

不 is normally 4th tone (bù), but there is one situation where this changes.

5. 不 is 2nd tone when followed by a 4th tone

As symbols:

[不] [4] ⇒ [不2] [4]

Examples:

不是 (is not): bù shì ⇒ ‘bú shì’

不会 (will not, cannot): bù huì ⇒ ‘bú huì’

不错 (not bad): bù cuò ⇒ ‘bú cuò’

A rule for 2nd tone

There is one rule for second tone that is often omitted from textbooks, but is present in the speech of many native speakers. It’s the most complicated rule and takes some getting used to. The rule is:

6. A 2nd tone preceded by a 1st or 2nd tone and followed by another tone becomes a 1st tone

This one will probably start to feel natural after a lot of listening practice and exposure. Written down, however, it looks fairly crazy.

As symbols:

[1 | 2] [2] [*] ⇒ [1 | 2] [1] [*]

(here the | represents ‘or’, and the * represents any tone)

Examples:

三年级 (third grade): sān niánjí ⇒ ‘sān niānjí’

谁来吃? (who’s coming to eat?): shéi lái chī? ⇒ shéi lāi chī?

特别难看 (especially ugly): tèbié nánkàn ⇒ tèbié nānkàn

Whilst it’s good to make some effort to memorise these rules, also remember that exposure to native speech is always very beneficial. The more you listen, the more natural these rules will become.

All six rules exist because the language sounds more natural and is easier to pronounce with them. Mandarin isn’t completely enslaved to its tones; it flows smoothly.

Skritter incorporates tone sandhi into its study routine, so you learn not only the sounds of characters in isolation, but also how they behave in words and phrases.

Tone change rules covered on other sites:


  • Kaiwen

    tone sandhi

    • http://eastasiastudent.net East Asia Student

      thanks for the correction

  • David Bielby

    My Schaum’s text book says that the numbers qi and ba (7 and 8) do the same changes as the number yi (1). I cannot find that anywhere else. Is that correct?

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩逺

      I’ve never heard that.. It does seem plausible though as the tone change rules just make things sound more natural. As always though, the best thing is just to listen and copy.

  • AR

    Seems like the second tone sandhi rule is quite complex and there are different versions of it. What is your source on the rule?

    I see you linked to this Sinosplice article http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2006/03/29/mandarin-tone-changes

    In that post a fairly recent comment (by sonja) argues that there is a rule where
    3-2-2 changes into half3-12
    eg. 美国人 měiguórén ⇒ mei˨˩guōrén
    What do you think of this?

    (The comment before sonja also introduces some other rules like 233 ⇒ 213, but I guess you already took it into account by applying the third tone sandhi rule first 233 ⇒ 223 ⇒ 213)

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩逺

      My source for the second tone rule is ‘Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar’ (ISBN: 978-0520066106; http://books.google.com/books?id=njea2LBW4jcC&lpg=PP1&dq=0520066103&pg=PA8).

      Yeah there probably are loads of different ‘rules’ (I think variations might be a better word). The main thing I took from Sinosplice is that tones really aren’t set in stone and you’re better off listening to native speakers and copying whatever they do. It’s just good to be aware of the most basic and obvious change rules.

  • Bái Fú Nán

    I just moved to China and in the language school they gave me the name Bái Fú-nán (白福男). Does rule 6 apply? Would the 222 become 212? Would it become something else? Thanks in advance.

    By the way, thanks for the page. It’s being very helpful.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩遠

      I’d imagine it would. 212 sounds a lot more natural than 222. The best thing though is to get native speakers to say it as much as possible and just copy them. Then you can pick up every nuance of the pronunciation (tones don’t dictate everything about a syllable).

  • ZuGe

    Hi thought i’d comment to just get some advice on this.

    I’ve just only discovered about this and while it is helpful I feel im getting bogged down by it. All the native speakers I talk to for instance when I ask them is 你好 pronounced ni2hao3 all say no it is ni3hao3.

    Thus myself trying to learn this tone sandhi feels like im getting bogged down on the tones. While my vocabulary in chinese is limited, when I do happen to say phrases most of the time my chinese friends can understand me, I dont know whether it is that they are used to my speech or maybe I am just doing the tone sandhi automatically, hence is it necessary to really try and focus that I am saying Ni2hao3 instead of ni3hao3.. i guess if i say it at a normal speed it sounds like ni2hao3 anyway?

    A good example I often say (in restaurants) 可以给我冰水马? i just keep my pitch low until I get to bing and i find people understand?? so i dont see any reason to try and change anything..??

    Thanks

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩遠

      Yeah I think it’s something native speakers do but might not be very aware of. It’s like if you ask English speakers “is there an R sound between ‘law’ and ‘order’ in ‘law and order’?”, most people will say no because they’ll think of how it’s spelt and how it should sound rather than what their mouth actually ends up doing. And if you don’t put the R sound in, people will understand, but it just sounds a bit unnatural. I do think it’s worth going beyond comprehensible, and actually trying to sound as native as possible. It’ll come naturally in any case – just keep listening and copying.

  • ZuGe

    Im more worried that native speakers wont have a clue what I’m saying or think i am saying it wrong if i start using this 23 combination.

    However to be honest I generally accept it now especially with words like hen2hao3 ke2yi3 na2li3.

    What confuses me is the grouping of words.. for instance in the sentence

    我也想你
    do we pronounce this as wo2ye3 xiang2ni3 还是 wo2ye2xiang2ni3???
    or are either of the two right??

    • http://eastasiastudent.net 葛脩遠

      I’d really say just copy native speakers as much as possible, and do what seems natural. You definitely reach a point where you don’t think about tones that much, and yeah you make some mistakes but you’re still comprehensible. And then it’s just staying on the road to improvement.

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  • Naomi

    This is the most helpful article on tone sandhi I have found so far. Thanks so much!

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  • Briguy

    ok, so if we have three 3rd tones in a row do we still count the second one as a third tone even if it changes to a 2nd

    example (3) (3) (3) becomes (3) (2) (3), or dose it become (2)(2) (3)

    thanx in advance for the answer.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg (葛修远)

      I think it should go [2] [2] [3], e.g. 我很好 sounds something like wó hén hǎo.

  • Guest

    Does tone sandi apply to the entire sentence? or just multi-sylable words? like if a sentence was 3 33 33 would you clump all the words together or apply tone sandi to each word independently of it’s surrounding tones?