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What Is a Tone Number?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many Westerners believe that Chinese refers to a single language and that variations in pronunciation are equivalent to dialectical differences found in English speakers who live in Southern states and those who live in Northern states. In fact, although the dozens of Chinese variants all use the same set of lexical items and same grammatical structures, a speaker from one area might be completely unable to communicate orally with a speaker from another. This is not because each considers the other’s accent to be too thick but because all Chinese words are composed not only of phonemes, or sound units, but also carry their meaning through tones, or the pitch at which a word is pronounced. Transcribers use a tone number as well as a tone name for a spoken phrase using one of several Western transcription methods.

With over 845 million speakers, Mandarin is by far the most used language in the world. Mandarin, like all Chinese languages, often called Chinese dialects, incorporates tones that determine a word’s meaning. Tone number one is called yin ping, and is an even sound that neither rises nor dips. Tone number two, yang ping, dips slightly in the middle of the word then returns to the original pitch. Shang is the third tone, and it, too, dips but more dramatically than yang ping, and the fourth and final tone in Mandarin, qu, starts at a high point and plunges.

Mandarin and other Chinese languages are monosyllabic; because all languages restrict the number phonemes, incorporating pitch into each Chinese word is a necessity, or there wouldn’t be enough phonemic combinations to suffice. English, like other polysyllabic languages, is not tonal for the simple reason that it isn’t necessary. Using only 40 phonemes, the English lexicon contains well over 250,000 words; this is possible because English permits multiple syllables, and new words combine roots with affixes as well as reorder sounds.

In Mandarin, a single syllable is a word, and by giving that syllable four tones in which it can be used, one syllable effectively becomes four distinct words. This may be complex enough to boggle many Westerners’ minds, but Taiwanese, another Chinese language, adds four additional tone numbers for a total of eight, and Cantonese incorporates nine distinct tones.

It’s important to note that, unlike many other languages, all Chinese languages or dialects are not alphabet based in their written forms. One character represents one word, and each word is a single syllable. This means that a Mandarin utterance that can be pronounced in tone number one, tone number two, and tone number four will be written using three distinct and unrelated characters. In this way, a Cantonese speaker and a Taiwanese speaker can read the same text and understand it fully but will pronounce it far differently.

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