I'm starting a Chinese languange course now, I've just seen that ma can have four meanings, it depends only on their tonal qualities.

I wonder: How extensible is this tonal quality rule in forming new meanings? Is there a rule where only a few syllables can have different meanings?

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    "ma can have four meanings" - You mean it can have four characters associated with this toneless pinyin? Remember each character can have multiple meanings too. So I am a bit confused since it's ambiguous what you are trying to put forward here. – deutschZuid Jun 7 '12 at 0:14
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    Also, note for each tone of ma, there are multiple characters with the same reading but different meaning. The four "meanings"(should be characters, I think) are only examples, not the only characters having that reading. – fefe Jun 7 '12 at 0:58

Like others have told you, you might be confused a little bit. First of all, while languages have words made of syllables, Chinese has characters where each character is a syllable. These syllables can be written using the Latin alphabet with some systems, Pinyin being the most common one. Syllables can have 5 different tones: high, rising, fall-rising, falling and neutral.

According to the syllable and the tone attached to it, you can have a different meaning (excluding the fact that many characters cannot stand alone).

If you write "mā", it doesn't necessarily mean "mother", since that Pinyin transcription can refer to different characters. For example, the characters below are all read as :


The one on the left-center is the Traditional form for 妈, which means "ma, mamma".

Not only that, the same character can have different readings, which means different meanings. But also in the same reading, we have different meanings! See the character 着 for example:


As you see, 着 has 5 different readings, but much more meanings, even for one single reading. I know this might scare you from learning Chinese, but once you start, you'll get used to it.

  • Did you make the pictures yourself? What did you use to make them? – dusan Jun 7 '12 at 17:52
  • @dusan Yeah I made them. I used LaTeX. :) – Alenanno Jun 7 '12 at 19:21

Welcome to the big adventure of learning Chinese, and don't let the tones scare you.

As for your question, I think most Chinese syllables can be pronounced with different tones in different words. For example, this big table of pinyin sounds lists four tones for each of the syllables I tried. As some others have pointed out, you can think of the meaning being attached to the character, not to the sound. Some characters just happen to have pronunciations that differ only in tone, and some characters are even pronounced with the same syllable and the same tone.

As I said, don't let this freak you out. Chinese has some features that are strange to an English speaker, but it also has features that are easier. You don't have to worry about plurals or verb tenses, for example.

Of course, if you enjoy wallowing in fear, you could always read David Moser's essay, "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard".

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