Standard Cantonese has six tones, Minnan, spoken primarily in Taiwan and Fujian, has five to seven; and so on down to Mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, which has only four. (I don't count neutral "tone", as it is conditioned by its environment).

Are there any dialects that have fewer than four? Examples of pronunciation would be very helpful, as would any references in the scholarly literature.


Sorry! In asking the question I should have considered the difference between "phonetic" tones and "phonemic" tones. Different analyses can come up with different tone inventories and different numbers of tones. Thanks for the clarifying comment below.

2 Answers 2


I am not sure, but probably the Shanghai dialect (上海话), which is said to have only two tones or rather pitch accents: low and high.

  • Wow, a surprising answer to me. I'm puzzled, though. Jerry Norman (Chinese, CUP 1988, p. 202) gives 5 tones, which was a number that had stuck in my memory. Is this a new analysis, or the results of new field work?
    – wpt
    Aug 2, 2015 at 17:08
  • 4
    @wpt There are 5 different phonetic realizations, but in all but one case, you can predict which one to use entirely on the basis of the voicing of the initial and whether there's a final stop. So there's only a 2-way distinction that phonemic--阴平 vs everything else. Aug 2, 2015 at 18:10
  • Sorry, I should have considered this problem in asking the question. I added a postscript to point out the possible different answers for "phonetic" vs. "phonemic" tones.
    – wpt
    Aug 3, 2015 at 1:20
  • 1
    @wpt The tones degenerated to pitches in normal fluid speeches
    – user58955
    Aug 3, 2015 at 14:31

Arguably 东干语 is an example, which has only three tones. The first and the second one in mandarin is merged. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungan_language

  • Do you have an audio sample of 'Dunganese'?
    – imrek
    Aug 3, 2015 at 14:51
  • This is one of the answers I expected. I remember from a class many years ago that there were a couple of other northern dialects that also had mergers of yin-ping and yang-ping, but supposedly they were distinguished when tone-sandhi occurred. Can't remember the names.
    – wpt
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:55
  • 1
    @DrunkenMaster youtube.com/watch?v=7C68ODKDuWI for example, starting at 35:00
    – user58955
    Aug 3, 2015 at 17:22

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