Tone contours

Tone are regular pitch changes which occur in Chinese and other languages. It can be represented as tone contours, or even graphically. The invention of the graphical representation is attributed to the Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao (ZHAO YuanRen).


The pitch levels range from the highest pitch which can be numbered /5/ to the lowest pitch level which can be numbered 1. To all intents and purposes, the Chinese syllables which end in [p t k] endings may be shown as short horizontal lines meaning that they are of a short duration, and is reflected in writing when a single number is given for the tone contour such as /1/, /2/, /3/, /4/ and /5/. For these tones alone, they are called the Ru or entering tone in the literature.

Isolated syllable

Syllable's tone after sandhi

In cases in some dialects where there occurs tone sandhi (the change of the pitch of a neighbouring syllable (from its original pitch if the syllable were read alone)) requires a way of representation, and so the first group illustrates the original tone contour, whichs those with the non-vertical lines on the right shows the sandied tone contour.

Languages such as Mandarin whose tones distinguishes four tone categories, (yin ping is the first tone /55/; yang ping is the second tone /35/; shang sheng is the third tone /214/ and qu tone is the fourth tone /51/ ) plus one unstressed tone. All the tones may be represented as two graphical variants. The slant of the non-vertical line is representative of the tone contour.

Of course, not all tones are the same as the standard for Mandarin Putonghua which based on the sounds of the Beijing dialect. Notice that tone 3 here is a falling rising tone.

For Hakka's Meixian dialect, there are six tones, two of which are Ru tones.

The first and fourth tone undergoe sandhi if the tone of the following syllable is lower than itself. Thus, the changes may be represented as a combination of the original tone and the sandhied tone.

[tone 1 syllable] [tone 2 syllable]

[tone 4 syllable] [tone 1 syllable]

Notice that /35/ and /55/ are not the tones contours of isolated syllables in Meixian Hakka.