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Why It's Hard to Learn Chinese
Disentangling Emotional from Lexical Meanings of Tones
Branka Zei-Pollermann
Vox Institute – Geneva, Switzerland

No language is spoken on a monotone. Variations of pitch are found in all languages. For the speakers of English, French or Italian they are musical features of speech. As in song, in speech the pitch can go up and down within an utterance and end rising, falling or flat. In speech such changes of pitch can embrace groups of words (called sense groups), short one-word utterances or entire sentences. In such non-tone languages “intonation” is a feature that does not affect the lexical meaning of words. It contributes significantly to the global meaning of the utterance. It does that by conveying information about the speaker’s attitudes, emotions and cognitive states. In addition, intonation has some basic linguistic functions such as chunking of utterances into sense groups, signalling emphasis and types of utterances (statement, question, command).

In Chinese pitch change is used to distinguish words. Inside global intonation patterns of Chinese language, the lexical tones can be seen as "small ripples riding on large waves" Yuan-Ren Chao (1933), i.e. the tones are integrated with intonation just like small ripples riding on large waves.

For us - non-tone language speakers- intonation patterns primarily signal the speaker’s attitudes (e.g. interest of lack of interest), cognitive states (doubt, certainty) and above all affective states (surprise, joy, anger, sadness, fear). How do we perceive the Chinese lexical tones? From our point of view, Chinese lexical tones can easily be interpreted as expressions of emotional attitudes. So, what’s our “gut feeling” when we hear Chinese tones? We may perceive them in terms of the meanings we habitually attribute to similar tunes found in English.

O'Connor and Arnold (1973) identified attitudinal and emotional meanings for each of the 6 tunes found in colloquial English: Low fall, High fall, Low rise, High rise, Rise-Fall, Fall-rise.

In this, all too short article, I shall compare the attitudinal and emotional meanings of English intonation patterns with those of the 4 basic tones.

Download the video here
4 basic tones
4 basic tones

The blue curve represents the pitch changes (the fundamental frequency or F0). In tone 1 the F0 has a high and flat pattern, in tone 2 it rises from mid to a high level, in tone 3 an initial fall is followed by a rise, and in tone 4 the F0 starts relatively high and falls abruptly.

In Chinese the F0 patterns (tones) are used to distinguish between lexical meanings.

Lexical meanings
Lexical meanings

When these tones are applied to English words, you can hear the following sounds:

Watch the similarity between the pitch change in four Chinese words [ma] the English utterance “Me!”.

Download the video here

Emotional Interpretation of Chinese Tones

Chinese Tone 1 ( ā ): flat, high pitch - more sung than spoken. In English, a flat intonation pattern is generally considered as a sign of disinterest, sadness, indifference, disengagement, even depression if persistent over time. Listen to the monotone pitch in the answer “Me” given to the question “Who is going to do all this work?”

Chinese Tone 2 ( á ): is close to the English Rising tone (the voice rises from a medium/low to a high pitch) where it can have the following meanings:

  • In statements: encouraging further conversation, reserving judgement, appealing to the listener to change his mind, resentful;
  • In WH questions mildly puzzled, calm but can also be disapproving and resentful,
  • In Yes/No questions: friendly, but could be sceptical.
  • In interjections: reserving judgement, casual acknowledgement

Listen to the rising tone in the answer “Me” given to the question “Who is going to do all this work?”

Chinese Tone 3 ( ǎ ): is close to the English Fall-rise (the voice first falls from a mid to a low pitch and then rises to a medium/high pitch). It can have the following meanings:

  • In statements: grudging, reluctantly or defensively dissenting, reproachful, hurt, greatly astonished,
  • In questions: greatly astonished, otherwise interested and concerned.
  • In commands: urgently warning with a note of reproach or concern
  • In interjections: scornful.

Listen to the Fall-rise in the answer “Me” given to the question “Who is going to do all this work?”.

Chinese Tone 4 ( à ): is similar to the English High-fall (the voice falls from high to low pitch). This tone can have the following meanings:

  • In statements: conveying a sense of involvement (if fast: aggressive, angry),
  • In WH questions: brisk, businesslike, interested, lively
  • In Yes/No questions: willing to discuss but not urgently, sometimes sceptical, mildly surprised acceptance of the listener’s premises.
  • In interjections: mildly surprised

Listen to the High-fall in the answer “Me” given to the question “Who is going to do all this work?”

Listen to the four Chinese tones applied to the English utterance « Me ! » as a response to the applied to English question “Who is going to do all this work?”

Who is going to do all this work?
Who is going to do all this work?

Chinese tone 5. There is also a fifth tone, the neutral tone, which is used rarely, mostly for phrase particles.

As we could see the same kind of change in pitch that is used in Chinese to differentiate word meanings is used in English to signal emotions, attitudes and cognitive states. The question therefore is: How are emotions, attitudes and cognitive states signalled in Chinese i.e. how does Chinese prosody integrate lexical tones?

Firstly, Chinese intonation does have different hierarchically organized layers. The use of falling or rising intonation to signal statements or questions is similar to that in intonation languages. Yuan-Ren Chao’s (1933) “algebraic sum” model is globally still valid. CAO Jianfen ( 2004) refined the model by providing empirical support that it is the change of pitch register that performs the linguistic functions (statement, question, command etc). Pitch register is defined as the average value of all pitch ranges (max-min F0 of each syllable or lexical item). This allows the basic shapes of tones to remain relatively unchanged. As far as prosodic signalling of emotions, attitudes or emphasis is concerned Huibin Jia, Jianhua Tao (2009) convincingly demonstrated that emphatic speech patterns (what they call “exclamatory” speech) are characterized by strong stresses on some modal words which then have heavy impact on adjacent speech units. In comparison with non emphatic speech the strongly stressed syllables of “exclamatory” speech are marked by wider F0 ranges and shorter durations. The pitch contour of syllables is then sharper or flatter depending on the context, but the basic time-varying profile of tones remains.

In summary, emotions, attitudes and cognitive states (assertion, query, doubt) are signalled in Chinese in two ways: (1) the change of the speaker’s pitch register, defined as the average value of all pitch ranges (max-min F0 of each syllable or lexical item) and (2) increase / decrease of the slope of lexical pitch contour (tone).

No wonder, that English, French or Italian speakers find it hard to master the subtleties and complexity of Chinese language.

To end on a musical note, listen to the prosody of the 4 Chinese words converted into a musical instrument and combined with voice.

Download the video here


  • O’Connor, J. D. and Arnold, G. F. (1973) Intonation of colloquial English, Longman Group Ltd., Bristol, U.K
  • Chao, Yuan Ren (1933). Tone and intonation in Chinese. Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology 4, 121 – 134.
  • Huibin Jia, Jianhua Tao (2009). Prosody modeling for mandarin exclamatory speech. International Conference on Multimedia and Expo ICME 2009.
  • Cao, Jianfen (2004): "Tonal aspects in spoken Chinese: global and local perspectives", In TAL-2004, 17-20 (International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages With Emphasis on Tone Languages Beijing, China, March 28-31, 2004.
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