In many languages, a tone conveys emotion. Thus, a word in the first tone might be perceived as conveying an easy-off emotion by a native Russian speaker; a word in the second tone might be most likely felt as a question by a native English speaker (provided both persons in both abstract examples are not familiar with Chinese), words in the third or fourth tone might be perceived by a native Russian speaker unaccustomed to Chinese as a question or command respectively.

In some languages, e.g. in Swedish (which is also a language of two-tone system, a little bit reminding that existing in Tibetan) an emotion is conveyed by intensity of speech, but not by tone.

In Finnish, which is almost a zero-tone language, an emotional meaning is conveyed mainly by a grammatical structure and/or lexical units, and sometimes by intensity of speech.

From my personal experience, I know that Chinese speakers, too, convey emotions in speech (e.g. when I was learning a Chinese verse, my teacher said that it sounds as if I were scolding somebody, so it's not about facial expression).

The question is, how do you convey emotions in Chinese? Is it possible to say something like 您好 but meaning actually 'go to hell', like in languages where an emotion is conveyed through a tone (e.g. in Russian / English)?

How do Chinese speakers perceive emotional states of each other in speech? Do they use tones, even altering them somehow, or do they use other means?

What is the spectrum of emotions covered by such means?

UPD: judging by this article, the emotional states are also culture-specific (e. g. there are no 'six basic facial expressions of six basic [Occidental] emotional states' for a native Chinese speaker) which complicates the issue a little bit.

  • 2
    Is it possible to say something like 您好 but meaning actually 'go to hell' - absolutely - sarcasm is easily heard and expressed through intonation or mood. Elongation of tones - overemphasis of words are very easy to hear unhappiness or ridicule.
    – Mou某
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 13:08
  • @ user3306356 ok, so sarcasm, unhappiness ans ridicule are expressed by tone elongation... What about other parts of the spectrum? And how do intonation differ from tones?
    – Manjusri
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 14:28
  • I think that emotions can be conveyed through all languages. So I'm not sure there's a "correct" answer for your question. Conveying emotions in Mandarin is just as easy as conveying emotions in English. The only thing I can think of is how intense the words were said.
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 14:32
  • @ Michael C and what is the correlation between an emotion and an intencity of speech?
    – Manjusri
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 14:35
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    see grammar on interjections/叹词 e.g. "实用现代汉语语法": 叹词列举: 一、表示得意、高兴、欢乐 :哈哈、嗬嗬、嘿嘿,语调低降、短促,第一音节重,第二音节轻,多用于直接引语中。有时形容笑声。例如:"哈哈哈,你这个坏小子。"人们笑得更响了。 二、表懊恼、叹息、哀伤 :唉(语调低降、舒缓),表示叹息、哀伤。例如:唉,这真是一个不可弥补的损失啊。咳、嗨(语气低降),表示叹息,不满、懊恼。例如:"咳!别提了"。我平常每天从家里出来,都是左手拿皮包,右手拿垃圾袋,今天早上一忙,给弄拧了结果,到了垃圾箱前,就把皮包扔进去了。 三、表示赞叹、羡慕 :喝、嗬、啊(语调降)多用于当面高声称赞。例如:"嗬,变化真大!我大概有三四年没来这儿了。"男人也动了感情。啊(语调降0,表示感叹。例如:啊,健康真好啊!。。。眼泪不由得流了下来。嗯/ng(语调低降),一般用于低声赞许。例如:嗯,你这次考试成绩还不错,够上优等了。语调上升时表示出乎意料。例如:嗯,怎么小闹钟又停了。啧、啧啧(为舌与上齿的吸气音),多用于对第三者的称赞,有时包含羡慕的意思,"啧"不单用,通常是两个或三四个"啧"连用。例如:啧啧,看人家十一岁的小姑娘写的楷书多好。 四、表示惊讶 : 哎呀、哎哟、喔哟(语调低降、短促)可表示吃惊、焦急,也可表示惊喜、惊惧。
    – user6065
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 17:37

3 Answers 3


How can Chinese express emotion if tones determine the meaning of a word? This should be one of the top 2 or 3 items on a Chinese language FAQ. It seems to be a constant source of puzzlement and a goad to much odd speculation.

The problem is that the word 'tone' when applied to Chinese does not mean what people think it does. Or perhaps people do not think carefully about what they think tone means when speaking of it in their own language.

For most people, it seems that tone is simply emotion embedded in language. This is much too simplistic to provide any insights into how we judge emotion in speech. What is an angry or frightened tone? Put in these terms, it's purely subjective.

For Chinese tones, however, it is possible to give a much more objective statement of what they consist of. Jerry Norman's book Chinese (published by Cambridge UP) gave what I thought was a very clear description: Tone consists of primarily of pitch, but duration and volume (Norman says intensity) are "important secondary cues." These are all relative, not absolute.

Much of what people tend to interpret as the emotional content of speech is in the departure of one of these from what has come before or what comes after.

This might seem puzzling, but perhaps a comparison with English might help. English indicates interrogative with a rising pitch. In contrast, many people interpret angry or strong emphasis with a falling pitch. Is it possible to ask an angry question in English? I think this is not at all difficult, using increased volume and duration and perhaps less of a rise in pitch than is common.

Emotional inflection in Chinese works in similar ways, with increased or decreased volume and duration. Pitch certainly does not work the way in Chinese that it does in English, and this can make it easy to misinterpret the emotional inflection of speech for those who do not know the language.

I have often heard learners complain that it sounds like Chinese speakers are arguing or angry all the time, and this was certainly my first impression when I heard people speaking in the Minnan dialect. In fact, however, I think that misjudging emotional content is common with most languages that one is unfamiliar with.

  • Thanks, that explained a lot. Yet, I wouldn't be so sure about misjudging emotional content in most of foreign languages, because Indo-European languages (well, at least most of Slavic, German and Romance languages) have a lot of common traits about the meaning of their tones (and, again, thank you very much for the explanation).
    – Manjusri
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 12:55

It is like you say "Shit", "Fucking". We are the same, we use "幹","他媽的" to convey strong emotions.

For example:

The fucking hot weather!




In here we just curse the weather; that means the weather is very very hot.

There, you can count how much "curse words" the man used, and know how much hot weather the man feels.

We can use the same word to express different meanings with different tones.


As the other answers say, the whole story of expressing emotion though intonation is terribly complicated in any language. But here is a very articulate discussion of one aspect from ChinesePod concerning complex sandhi of third tones. I quote it since the web page may be available only to subscribers. It describes sandhi in a sentence, using 2 and 3 as tone numbers on the first four words 我 等你 等 as pronounced. Of course all these characters have assigned tone 3:

These tones below are what's usually said in this sentence and how it is meaningfully broken down.

我 等 你 等了 10 分鐘 了 。 3 2 3 3

However, the start of the sentence, 我, sounded like a second tone because the sentence was said emotionally.

It's same when you say 我想你 in just regular tone. It would be 323.

If somebody is really emotionally yelling this out it would sound like 223 as well.

This is in the context of a new series they put up on on pronunciation, called Say It Right, which is worth looking at.

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