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Tone Variations


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I keep on encountering variant tones in my studies. After making strong efforts to learn my tones correctly, I have on occasion found it jarring to encounter learning materials that show a word with a variant tone without any explanation. The initial impression I get is that I have misremembered the tone, and so I try to fix in my memory the new "correct" data; however, when I later encounter the original variation, I often begin to wonder what is going on and get confused.

Some of what is going on is simply the normal variation in every language and is not unique to Chinese. Some of it is due to regional variation. A good deal of it seems to stem from slightly different standards between the mainland and Taiwan. From other posts on this forum, I gather that the Taiwanese standards date from a slightly earlier generation. Sources like zhongwen.com and Harbaugh's related 中文字谱 Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary do an excellent job of showing variation between mainland and Taiwanese usage.

I would like to make a brief list of common variants and would ask others to contribute any others they are aware of. I am not trying to address the issue of 破音字 po4 yin1 zi4 (characters that have different tones or pronunciation in different contexts), but rather characters that have variant tones in the same context. In addition, I would like to add character combinations that are basically not documented in commonly available material. I will list the character first (alphabetically according to the standard pinyin), then a relevant meaning, then what my mainland-oriented source materials say is the standard pronunciation, and then other variants I have encountered or suspect. Just for completeness, I will throw in a few words where the variation goes beyond tone. I will not try to reproduce all of the variation between mainland and Taiwanese official standards, because that does appear to be well documented.

Please let me know where any of the information is incorrect. I would also appreciate any comments that otherwise can help a learner understand why one variant might be used over another or about how frequently one variant or another occurs.

八个人 (eight people) ba1 ge5 ren2, ba2 ge5 ren2

(Apparently, 七 qi1 and 八 ba1 can optionally undergo this type of tone change before any fourth tone words, like 个 ge4.)

答应 da1 ying5, da2 ying5 (Can someone confirm this variant?)

多[大] (how [big]) duo1 [da4], duo2 [da4] (Note the limited context in which this occurs.)

多么 (how) duo1 ma5, duo2 ma5

结婚 (marry) jie2 hun1, jie1 hun1 (Can jie1 be substituted for jie2 generally, or only in limited circumstances?)

那 (that) na4, nei4 (The second is the usual informal pronunciation in combination with measure words. The first must be used when no noun follows. Either can be used before 一 yi1, as in 那一些.)

那么 (so) na4 me5, nem4 me5

哪 (which) na3, nei3 (The second seems to be the usual informal pronunciation in combination with measure words. The first must be used when no noun or measure word immediately follows. Either can be used before 一 yi1, as in 哪一些.)

期 (time period) qi1, qi2

七个人 (seven people) qi1 ge5 ren2, qi2 ge5 ren2

(Apparently, 七 qi1 and 八 ba1 can optionally undergo this type of tone change before any fourth tone words like 个 ge4.)

一 (as soon as) yi1 (Apparently, some people apply the same tone variation rules to 一 in this meaning as they do in its meaning of "one." Others always pronounce it in the first tone in this meaning. I would appreciate confirmation of this information. Sample sentences to consider would be: 他一到我就去。 他一看就哈哈笑起来了。 What tones can be used for 一?)

因为 yin1 wei4, yin wei2, yin1 wei5 (Can anyone confirm the neutral tone variation?)

这 (this) zhe1, zhei4 (The second is the usual information pronunciation in combination with measure words. The first must be used when no noun follows. Either can be used before 一 yi1, as in 这一些.)

主意 (idea) [zhu3 yi5], zhu2 yi5 (The standard tones written in dictionaries apparently do not reflect real usage patterns in Beijing and perhaps elsewhere. It is unclear to me what pronunciation is safest for the average non-Chinese to adopt; however, the second variant is the only one I can recall having heard with absolute certainty and that was on U.S. Foreign Service Institute tapes based on Beijinghua accents in the phrase 好主意. This was pronounced hao3 zhu2 yi5, rather than as hao2 zhu3 yi5.)

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These are according to two standard mainland dictionaries «新华字典» and «辞海». It may or may not reflect pronunciations standard or colloquial elsewhere.

*(pronunciations in parenthesis are colloquial versions)

这zhe4 this 这些zhe4xie1(zhe4xie5) these

那na4 that 那些na4xie1(na4xie5) those

哪na3 which 哪些na3xie1(na3xie5) which

这zhei4 this one (here) 这些zhei4xie1(zhei4xie5) these ones (here)

那nei4 that one (there) 那些nei4xie1(nei4xie5) those ones (there)

哪nei3 which one (where) 哪些nei3xie1(nei3xie5) which ones (where)

There are no other pronunciations that are correct. They are not interchangeable, 这zhei4, 那nei4, 哪nei3 can never be followed by 一yi1 "one", but it can be followed by plurals, 些xie1, 两liang3...

"哪一些" would be pronounced "na3yi4xie1", and never as "nei3yi4xie1", but most people would use "哪些nei3xie1" instead.

Not really on topic but related, also the pronunciations (probably only in Beijing):

这zher4 here

那nar4 there

哪nar3 where


结婚jie2hun1 is correct, others are incorrect. The character "结" has two pronunciations, and it shoud be labled in dictionaries:

结jie2 (1) tie, weave, to tie, to weave; (2) knot, to knot; (3) to assemble, to congeal; (4) to settle, to conclude (5)affidavit, a written guarantee;

结jie1 (1) to bear (fruits), to form (seeds);

The two pronunciations differ in meanings, and are not interchangeable.


期 has two pronunciations, qi1 and ji1, qi2 is an older pronunciation in the mainland, while in Taiwan and maybe other places, qi2 is preferred over qi1.


答应da1ying4(da1ying5). The character "答" has two pronunciations, and it should be labled in dictionaries:

答da2 (1) answer, respond (回答); (2) return (报答);

答da1 (1) colloquial words, answer, respond (答应,答理)


主意zhu2yi4(zhu2yi5) "idea" 主is pronounced as zhu2 to differentiate from 主义zhu3yi4(zhu3yi5) "ideaology, -ism", even though it is still labled as "zhu3yi4" in dictionaries, no one pronounce it as "zhu3yi4". I always use 主意zhu2yi4(zhu2yi5), and never 主意zhu3yi4.


因为yin1wei2 is correct, yin1wei4 is correct but few pronounce it as this. Both yin1wei2 and yin1 wei4 are listed in dictionaries. Even in the colloquial language there isn't a "yin1wei5".


一yi1 correct>>yi2 correct "one"

三san1 correct>>san2 incorrect "three"

七qi1 correct>>qi2 incorrect "seven"

八ba1 correct>>ba2 incorrect "eight"

These are all numerals that has a the first tone as the standard. With the exception of 一yi1 which could change to yi2 or yi4 depending on the tone of the character that follows, 三san1, 七qi1, 八ba1 do not change their tones. Nevertheless there is a tendency to change them according to the rules that change 一yi1. I never use 三san2, 七qi2, 八ba2.


多duo1 is correct, however in the colloquial version there are two pronunciations but are unrecorded in dictionaries:

多duo1 used in statements;

多duo2 used in questions;

Since it is not standardised, some people may be using 多duo2 in statements as well. I never use 多duo2.


比较bi3jiao4(bi3jiao5) is correct, bi2jiao3 is correct, never as bi3jiao3, because there is a tone shift when two third tone characters form a word. bi2jiao3 is not listed in dictionaries, it is used colloquially:

比较bi3jiao4(bi3jiao5) when used as verb;

比较bi2jiao3 when used as adverb;

It is not standardised.


I think I'm done. I hope it was helpful...

Shìbó :mrgreen:

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期 has two pronunciations, qi1 and ji1, never as qi2.

never ... 言重了 ...

Listen to Taiwanese speak. They say 星期 xing1 qi2 (not qi1), 危險 wei2 (not wei1) xian3 ...

Look them up in an older (and better) dictinoary and you might find these old/different pronunciations.

Life would be so boring without such variations ... :wink:

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Sorry, I looked on a dictionary from Taiwan and qi2 was listed over qi1, so I changed it to:

" 期 has two pronunciations, qi1 and ji1, qi2 is an older pronunciation in the mainland, while in Taiwan and maybe other places, qi2 is preferred over qi1."

I hope it is better. Also I was looking at another thread about "因为" instead I found this about "什么"

It seems in older dictionaries and dictionaries from Taiwan and probably other places, the dictionary lists as 什麽(甚麽)she2me5(sounds like 蛇么), this I have never heard before. I hear shen2 me5, shem2 me5 in Beijing, and sen2 me5, se2 me5 from several people. Here is a little comparison done by someone at Peking University:


“上声:文化程度 高>中>低”的意思是:文化程度越高,说上声的几率越高;文化程度越低,说上声的几率越低。下同。

1.12 上声、疑问上声、-n尾的社会因素相关性总结

  (1)上声:"pronounce as shen3"

① 文化程度 高>中>低 education: high>mid>low

② 性别 女>男 gender: female>male

③ 年龄 青>中>老 age: young>middle>elder

④ 地区 城区>非城区 location: urban>non-urban

⑤ 民族 满>汉>回 ethnicity: manchu>han chinese>hui

  (2)疑问上声: "raise tone when questioning"

① 性别 女>男 gender: female>male

② 文化程度 高>中、低 education: high>mid,low

③ 年龄 青、中>老 age: young,middle>elder

  (3)-n尾: "pronounce with nasal final -n"

① 地区 非城区>城区 location: non-urban>urban

② 文化程度 低、中>高 education: low,mid> high

③ 性别 男>女 gender: male>female

3. 历代文献中的“什么” "什么" in historical documents

上文1.0、2.0关于“什”的声调、韵尾的前期、近期统计结果的大致趋势是:“什”的上声、疑问上声关于社会因素的相关差异与-n 尾恰恰相反。据志村良治考证(1995),唐末至宋“甚摩”、“什摩”两种标志混用的时代“什”(“甚”)已有可能读如阳平闭口韵(从“十”音推之)。而目前可见的历史文献、各版字典及方言资料(见附表)表明:“甚”、“什”疑问用法的书面记录最早出现于1898年的《官话萃珍》,它们的音标各自独立: shen4、shi2。1937年的《汉语词典》(简本)中“甚”有两音:she2、shen2,“什”有一音:she2,这可能是“什”韵母为央元音È 的最早辞书记载。那之后的字典就总在“什”有无-n尾的问题上发生分歧,1962年普通话审音委员会颁布正式审音意见后“什”的标音才获得统一—— [shen2]。“什么”在《汉语口语语法》(赵元任,1968)中则有两种注音:she2me0 ([È]处在闭音节中,m属于前后两个音节,如英语的summer)和she2-me0(“什么”带开元音[°],音“蛇”)。“什”的上声调类除了与闽南方言 “是物”[sim3-mI`?7] 的前字及僮语、白语的汉语借词有所对应外,其余“什”均为阳平、去声或入声。沈炯(1998)对口语中“什么”的语音模式描述为“she(n)-m常用上声加轻音的组合,-m有高音特征。”综上,我们基本可以认定“什”为上声较“什”无-n尾更是一种晚近才发生的语音现象。


Sorry again, I'll leave this question to other people.

-Shìbó :mrgreen:

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There are many variants that are not found in dictionaries, even common Beijing pronunciations. For example, shi3 is a common pronunciation for 室 shi4, xue3 for 血 xue4 or xie3 etc. Some neutral tones are never found in dictionaries.

This is mainly due to the fact that most reference works are for 'putonghua', an artificial construct. Books on dialects are usually more linguistically honest, so you will find many of these variant pronunciations discussed there.

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