Mandarin Sounds and Tones
Lesson 1

This first sounds and tones lesson will concentrate on the basics of the Mandarin sound system, the basic tone system, and discuss phonological rules that are seen in the first language skill first grammar lesson.

 It is common to use diacritics (marks above the sound) to note tones, but because of difficulty with typing them and displaying them together with Chinese characters, this website uses the pinyin system with the numbers denote the tone.  This is a common practice and will be explained below.

Sounds

Mandarin sounds have some significant differences with both English and Cantonese.  Mandarin morphemes are mostly monosyllabic. They consist of an initial consonant sound, a final sound, and a tone.  The entire morpheme is the sound plus the tone.

Morpheme initial final xiang2
Sound x iang
Tone

2 (rising)

The final sound be broken down into three parts: the medial, the main vowel, and an ending consonant.  However, only the main vowel is necessary, the other two parts can be omitted.  Even the initial can be omitted.  Sometimes this is referred to as being the "null" initial, though this just means that there isn't one.

sound

initial

final

@

@

medial

main
vowel

ending
consonant

xiang

x

i

a

ng

shi

sh

@

i

@

a

@

@

a

@

xue

x

u

e

@

hen

h

@

e

n

er

@

@

e

r

zhuang

zh

u

a

ng

Initials

There are 23 initials in modern Mandarin: B, C, Ch, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, Sh, T, W, X, Y, Z, and Zh,

Note that not all the symbols used in the pinyin romanization system are the same as used in English, IPA, or any other system.  However, most of the initials are similar enough to be intuitive for most learners.  The most troublesome initials (c, ch, q, sh, z, and zh) are covered in Sounds and Tones Lesson Two.

Finals

There are 33 final sounds in Mandarin, however these are primarily combinations of just a few basic sounds (e.g. a, an, u, un, and uan are 5 different final sounds).  The sounds are a, e, i, o, u, ai, ao, ou, ui, l, n, and ng.  The more difficult final sounds will be covered in Sounds and Tones Lesson Three.

Tones

Standard Mandarin has 4 basic tones, with the addition of a neutral tone, to make a total of 5 possible tones.  The tone is absolutely essential to the meaning of the word and is as much apart of the total sound of a word in Chinese as any letter.  shi1 is as different from shi4 as "dog" is different from "dot."

Level

Level

Rising

Dipping

Falling

Diacritic

Tone Number

1

2

3

4

 Example
shi1

shi2

shi3

shi4

When using diacritics, the tone is marked above the main vowel sound, but in writing it generally covers the entire final.  The first tone is marked with a flat line (ā), the second tone is marked with a rising accent mark or upwards slash (á), the third tone is marked with a dipping symbol (ă), the fourth tone is marked with a falling accent mark or downward slash (à), and the neutral tone (when marked) is shown with a dot above the vowel (å)

More help on tones will be given in Sounds and Tones Lesson Four.

Learning Helps

Practice and re-practice these sounds and tones.  Simply seeing them on paper or hearing them once will not help you.  Pay particular attention to specific differences between tone levels and similar sounds.


Lesson 1 | Lesson 2

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