Grammar Lesson 6:

Tones in Chinese

In the Chinese language tones play an important role. In other words Chinese is a tonal language. Getting a tone wrong can often mean that you are not understood by a native speaker. Tones are indicated via numbers or tone marks.

There are 4 main tones:

First tone: ma1 or mā (even, level tone)
Second tone: ma2 or má (rising tone)
Third tone: ma3 or mǎ (falling then rising tone)
Fourth tone: ma4 or mà (falling tone)

The Fourth tone sounds "a bit angry", like you say "No!" to a naughty child. Incidentally 罵 (mà or ma4) means "to scold" in Chinese.

There is also a fifth tone (neutral tone). It is toneless and has no tone marks. It is pronounced flatly without any intonation.