Understanding the neutral tone in Mandarin

In Chineseby Olle Linge

The neutral tone causes great confusion for most learners of Mandarin. What does “neutral” mean? How do you pronounce something “unstressed”? How high/low should the tone be? What about neutral tones in words, different dictionaries give different answers?

In this post, I’m going to answer these questions (and some more) about the neutral tone. This is the kind of information which should be in any good textbook, but typically isn’t.

neutral+tone

Some basic information

In case you’ve just started learning Chinese, the neutral tone can be written in several ways:

  1. No tone mark over the vowel: “dōngxi
  2. Using the number 5: “dong1xi5
  3. Using the number 0: “dong1xi0

These all mean the same thing, they are just different ways of spelling.

The neutral tone usually occurs in the second syllable of a two-syllable word or between two stressed syllables or in phrases. It never appears at the beginning of a word.

What does “neutral” mean?The neutral tone is called 轻声/輕聲 (qīngshēng) in Chinese, which literally means “light tone” rather than “neutral tone”. The most important thing to know about a syllable with a neutral tone is that it doesn’t keep the tone of the original syllable. Instead, the tone comes from somewhere else. The syllable of a neutral tone is unstressed, but more about this later, let’s look at the tone first.

First, there is a default height of the neutral tone used when reading words, which is what you should always use unless you have a good reason not to. The general rule is that the neutral tone is lower than the preceding tone, except if the preceding tone is a third tone, in which case the neutral tone is higher. There are specific pitch heights here, but let’s not bother with that now, just remember that it should be lower than the preceding tone, except after a third tone.

Second, the neutral tone is often influenced by intonation. This means that the same neutral tone can be read in many different ways depending on the context and the mode of speech. Intonation in general doesn’t change the pitch contour (the shape of the tone) in Mandarin, but it does shift the entire tone range up or down, more or less in the same way as in English (i.e. up for questions, down for statements). The neutral tone is much less constrained and has no definite shape.

What does “unstressed” mean?

This should be relatively easy for native speakers of English. If we take a word like “English”, the stress is on the first syllable, the second is unstressed. The same is true for many Chinese words and the neutral tone appears on these unstressed syllables.

What does this mean? It means that the neutral tone is usually shorter and lighter. Compare these two words:

  1. dōngxī means “east west”
  2. dōngxi means “thing, stuff”

The difference in pronunciation is that a) the syllables are roughly equally long in the first case, but not in the second (“dōng” is longer than “xi”) and b) the tone height of the second syllable is lower on the second syllable.

Unstressed syllables are also reduced, which means that the pronunciation often changes. This is fairly complicated and I won’t go into detail here, just be aware of it. This happens in English as well, so when we say a word like “control”, we don’t pronounce the first syllable like we do in “continent”, instead, the syllable is reduced and the vowel sounds more like “e” in “the”.

Default tone height of the neutral tones

As mentioned above, I don’t think the exact numbers matter much, but since I know someone will ask about it if I don’t write them, here we go (the scale used is 1-5 where 1 is low and 5 high):

  1. After a first tone: 2 (mid-low)
  2. After a second tone: 3 (mid)
  3. After a third tone: 4 (mid-high)
  4. After a fourth tone: 1 (low)

Variations in vocabulary

Recently, I’ve started helping out with Chinese support and a lot of questions/issues are about neutral tones. The problem is that there is a large number of words that can be pronounced in more than one way, or written in more than one way. Should父亲/父親 and 母亲/母親 be “mǔqin” and “fùqin” or “mǔqīn” and “fùqīn”?

You have two options here. Either you spend ten minutes trying to figure out which one is the “correct” way of saying it, or you realise that a language such as Mandarin is huge, diverse and organic and that there might be more than one way of pronouncing the word.

In other words, don’t worry too much, it’s easy to understand regardless of which version you choose and it’s not hard to adapt your pronunciation later if you want to. In general, the Beijing dialect contains many neutral tones and reductions compared with e.g. Taiwanese Mandarin.

On Skritter, we try to use the most standard version of the pronunciation, but this doesn’t mean that everything else is wrong. As I said, in many cases, both are perfectly acceptable. If you find a problem with a neutral tone on Skritter, please report it so we can improve!

Conclusion

The neutral tone is hard, but if you make the syllable unstressed and remember that the neutral tone after a third tone should rise, you’ll be okay in most cases.

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