Did Mother Scold the Hemp Horse?

Published 2007-03-15

The crazy difficult thing about learning Mandarin are those devil tones. In Mandarin, the way you pronounce a vowel is often more important than the actual vowel itself. Officially, Mandarin has four tones (high, falling, rising, and falling-rising). As the number of possible syllables in Chinese is limited (less than 400), this effectively quadruples the number of available syllables. Some syllables lose their tones, which for all effects adds a fifth tone (toneless).

The (literal) textbook example of Mandarin tones is ma. Depending on how you say ma, it may mean “mother”, “to scold”, “horse”, “hemp”, or “the preceding sentence is actually a question”. There is actually a Chinese tongue twister that translates to something like “did Mother scold the hemp horse?” Of course, there are not many situations in which you might be mistaken for saying “hemp” instead of “mother,” so in most instances context rescues the hapless foreigner from making serious mistakes.

On the other hand, there are a surprising number of words with fiendishly similar meanings, but which are distinguishable only by tone. “Buy” and “sell” are both mai, and “which” and “that” are both na, for example. And just try asking a question without pitching your voice up on the last few syllables. (Chinese speakers don’t, because then the meaning of those syllables would change.)

Moreover, I suspect native speakers do have some issues with tones. Mandarin conversations take about twice as long to complete as comparable English conversations; a major component of said conversations is establishing which thing you mean. For example, native speakers never simply say something like “take me to the China National Bank on North Lakeside Road,” they say “take me, you know drive me, to the bank. The China National Bank. You know, the bank on North Lakeside Road. North of the Lake. By the corner next to the Shuyou seafood hotel.” I am not exaggerating. I am listening right now to two of my employees discussing a design change in almost exactly this way. There is a larger propensity in Chinese culture to focus on context over content, however, so maybe it isn’t really about a structural weakness with the language. Or is it that the language reflects this propensity; that is, since they prefer to discuss the context already, why bother filling the spoken language with thousands of discrete syllables (as in English)?

Several Chinese friends have told me that when children are taught new words, they learn the tones first, the vowels second, and the consonants lastly. Contrast this with the way in which you learned French, where great attention was lavished on producing the correct “j” sound in “je suis,” and none whatsoever on whether you pitched “suis” up and “je” down, or vice versa. On top of my inability to distinguish tones while listening is the fact that I never bothered to learn which tones go with which words in the first place. My butchery of Mandarin tones produces great mirth among my Chinese friends and employees.

So, long story short: I’ve really been struggling with these damned tones. But recently I realized I could pick out two tones, which is 50% better than hearing one tone. This allowed me to develop a kind of cheat for tones.

Mandarin Tones (Textbook Version)

There are four tones in Mandarin. They are distinguished by either pitch or volume. A rising tone may be higher or louder than a falling tone.

  1. The first tone (high) is your normal speaking tone, but in a slightly higher register, and neither rises nor falls in pitch.
  2. The second tone (rising) starts at normal tone, but rises steadily, similar to asking an honest question in English.
  3. The third tone (falling-rising) falls from the normal speaking tone, then pitches rapidly upward, sort of like a rhetorical question in English.
  4. The fourth tone (falling) begins at the normal speaking tone and drops rapidly, similar to a curt cut-off in English.

This is how most books and teachers describe Mandarin tones, and it utterly useless to anyone who does not already speak Mandarin.

Mandarin Tones (Paul’s Cheat Version)

In actuality, there are only two tones in Mandarin. At least, only two tones that foreigners can hear or produce. Each tone has two sub-tones that only actual Chinese people born in China to Chinese parents can hear or replicate.

  1. The Angry tone is either high and flat, or falling (“first” and “fourth” tones in Textbook Mandarin). Angry syllables sound curt and abrupt.
  2. The Happy tone rises at the end (“second” and “third” tones in Textbook Mandarin). It takes twice as long to say ma with the happy tone as it does with the angry tone.

So whenever a Chinese speaker (for example, our Mandarin teacher) says you need to “stress” a syllable, they mean “use the Happy tone, not the Angry tone.” Do this and you will be 50% more accurate in your pronunciation than if you tried to make the correct Textbook tone.