Sunday, July 27, 2014

That sneaky third tone - stand still!

I've been thinking a fair amount about tones lately, and although some of the points are relatively basic, I thought it would be useful to put some of them down in writing. There is a surprise in here for you!

So today I wanted to write a really short article about the changeability of the third tone - going from blatant to less well known.

1: The Default Position
The character 你 means 'you', and it is written in pinyin as: . This is the dipping tone (it sounds like it looks) - and if you want to hear it pronounced correctly, just selected the audio option here.

2: Two in a word
There are some words which contain two third tones next to each other, like 你好 (nǐhǎo) - this is 'hello' and probably the first Chinese word you learned. In practice, you do not say nǐhǎo when you find words containing two third tones in a row: the first third actually becomes a second. If you have studied Chinese for more than a couple of months, you probably know this. Officially, pinyin still writes this as nǐhǎo even if it's pronounced níhǎo.

3. Two in a row, but different words
This is a slightly different variation of the above, but worth noting. Take the phrase 'very good' which is written 很好 (hěn hǎo).  Even though they are two separate words (so there is a space between hěn & hǎo), you still use the same rule as above, and pronounce this: hén hǎo.

4. The memorise-it-anyway-even-though-it-makes-no-sense type
Many students of Chinese learn the following phrase quite early on: 马马虎虎. It translates as 'horse horse tiger tiger', and the meaning is more like 'not so bad' or 'OK' (not quite a horse not quite a tiger, I guess). And this phrase is a sneaky collection of third tones:
    - 3333: item by item, it's mǎmǎhǔhǔ - but that's wrong
    - 2323/2223: if we followed the rules above, it might be either mámǎhúhǔ or mámáhúhǔ - but that's wrong too
    - 3511: actually the correct tones are: mǎmahūhū (!)

So odd, yes.
But worth noting (just in case).