A foreign visitor got lost on the street, he approached a girl and spoke to her in Chinese: “Miss, wo xiang wěnwěn ni...”.

The girl was so angry and replied to him: “You are so rude! You attempt to KISS a stranger on the street?”

“No, No, No! Wo xiang wènwèn ni — zhege difang zenme zou. I want to ASK you how I can get to this place.”

See? The foreign traveler’s Chinese pronunciation made the girl confused. KISS me or ASK me is a question and trouble too! Remember: 问 wèn (ask) is the 4th tone, but 吻 wěn (kiss) is the 3rd tone.

Chinese has four pitched tones and a “toneless” tone (ā→  á↗  ǎ∨  à↘). The reason for having these tones is probably that the Chinese language has very few possible syllables — approximately 400 — while English has about 12,000. For this reason, there may be more homophonic words , words with the same sound expressing different meanings, in Chinese than in most other languages. Apparently tones help the relatively small number of syllables to multiply and thereby alleviate but not completely solve the problem. Learning Chinese in context, therefore, is very important.

Tone Mark Description
1st High and level.
2nd Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top.
3rd Starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top.
4th Starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom.
Neutral Flat, with no emphasis.

Can you imagine that the Chinese use only three syllables when expressing the same meaning as each of the following sentences conveys?

A mother who is riding on a horse thinks that it is slow and so she curses it.

Māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn, mā mà mǎ.

妈 mā - mum
马 mǎ - horse
骂 mà - curse

Click here to listen and practise the above sentence.

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