One of my dialectical dictionaries takes tone value 21 and compares it to Mandarin's neutral tone.

The same tone, coincidentally enough, had been described in the same way to me by a local native speaker (i.e.: tone value 21 - Mandarin's neutral tone).

While it's logical to me, it does seem like a little bit of a stretch.

Cantonese's fourth tone (at least according to jyutping) is also tone value 21, think 唔 m4 (meaning 不).

I can't seem to find any information talking about tone values with the neutral tone, I guess because it's not considered a tone to begin with.

  • does Mandarins neutral tone have any tone values associated with it?

  • if so, does it differ by region?

  • is it reasonable at all to say that tone value 21 is equivalent to Mandarins neutral tone?

2 Answers 2


"Neutral" tone is not really a tone, and shouldn't be used for comparison with lexical tones. Jerry Norman (Chinese, p. 148) calls syllables with neutral tone 'weakly stressed syllables' to avoid just this misundertanding:

The term 'neutral tone' implies that weakly stressed syllables are a kind of 'fifth tone'. From both a synchronic and a diachronic perspective this is misleading. Unlike the four basic tones, weakly stressed syllables cannot be pronounced in isolation; when an element which normally has weak stress is cited in isolation, as for example when a teacher of grammar discusses a certain particle like le or ba, it must be supplied with a tone (usually a first tone). Moreover, the phonetic value of a weakly stressed syllable is determined almost entirely by the tone of the preceding syllable.

The last sentence is the basic problem. "Neutral tone" is not a fixed tone value at all, but changes depending on the syllable in front of it. Describing something as being like Mandarin's 'neutral tone' thus gives you no basis for comparison at all.

Norman's book Chinese, Cambridge UP, 1988) is a reliable, standard, resource for such basic technical points as this. CUP is expensive; look for used copies.


The neutral tone doesn't have a fixed value; it's phonetic realization is largely determined by the preceding tone:

Also called fifth tone or zeroth tone (in Chinese 轻声 [輕聲] qīng shēng, literal meaning: "light tone"), neutral tone is sometimes thought of as a lack of tone. It is associated with weak syllables, and thus usually comes at the end of a word or phrase, and is pronounced in a light and short manner. The pitch of the neutral tone depends almost entirely on the tone of the preceding syllable. [...]

First ˥ ˨ 2 玻璃 bōli glass ˥.˨

Second ˧˥ ˧ 3 伯伯 bóbo uncle ˧˥.˧

Third ˨˩ ˦ 4 喇叭 lǎba horn ˨˩.˦

Fourth ˥˩ ˩ 1 兔子 tùzi rabbit ˥˩.˩

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