And, more broadly, is there a pattern when words like 空 have the same pronunciation but different tones, depending on the word?

  • "汉语水平考试词典" 空 kōng (形)[义1]里面没有任何东西;也指没有内容,不切实际(empty;hollow):~档|~手|~城计(user added:undefended city stratagem; bluff) |~头支票 (ua (1) [counterfeit check; bad check]∶支付不了的无效支票 (2) [an empty promise]∶借喻言而不行、 轻诺寡信者开了一大把空头支票)|真~|目~一切|挖~心思|~~如也|赤手~拳|海阔天空|坐吃山~|屋子里的东西都搬~了|给你一只~箱子装书。[义2]没有结果;徒劳的(fruitless; for nothing;in vain):~喊|~转|~跑了一趟,什么也没买到|他的发言~话连篇。 空 kōng (名词性)[义3]天空(sky;air):~降|~投|~运|碧~万里|防空|领空|星~|今天晴空万里,阳光灿烂|机上的~姐送来了饮料。 空 kòng (动/形)[义1]留出空位来;使空(leave empty or blank):我们把他的位子~出来|这书架先让它~着。(形)[义2]尚没有使用的或里面东西不多(unoccupied;vacant;free):~地|~额|~格|~缺|~闲|钻~子|今天电车很~|请问,你们旅社还有~房间吗? – user6065 Jan 23 '18 at 23:03
  • more examples of tone and related meaning changes:钉、缝,膏,(preceding 3 examples have change from noun to verb, with verb having 4th tone), 担、教 search Q&A for some previous discussion of tone change resulting from word category change – user6065 Jan 23 '18 at 23:04
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    Can you post that as an answer? That's definitely not a comment. – Lou Jan 23 '18 at 23:06
  • it would mean extra work! Comments are much easier to write and not subject to down votes by other hostile users. – user6065 Jan 23 '18 at 23:08
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    They're also much harder to read, and impossible to vote as the best answer. – Lou Jan 23 '18 at 23:21

Generally, first tone means it is related to air/sky/vaccuum/or stressing its emptiness.

空调-air conditioner,空气-air,天空-sky 航空-aviation 真空-vaccuum,空虚-emptiness

Fourth tone usually means something related to blank/room or space/emptiness, and stressing that it can be used or filled

空格-space 空当-free time or space,填空-fill in the blank 空白-blank/空缺-vacancy/空隙-slot/空出时间 (may not be appropriate translation,sorry)

Another interesting example:

这个房间是空的。 This room is empty.(first tone)

哪个房间空出来? Which room is available(so that I can use)?(fourth tone)

  • fourth tone uses for interval/capacity/volume (its usage is 'verb'). first tone used for emptiness (its usage is noun). – Daniel Yeung Jan 31 '18 at 9:10
  • It doesn't have to be verb or noun...I mean, fourth tone words 空白 空缺 are actually adjective. And first tone can also be a verb...e.p. 不要空想。 Don't daydream. or 他还空着肚子。 He is still hungry. I am not a language teacher, so sorry I can't tell you a theory or rule. But it's actually not that strict in Chinese to distinguish between verb and noun and adj and whatever...So this can't be a shortcut. – Ran Feb 2 '18 at 8:40
  • emmm after think twice, I am not so sure about this examples are noun or verb or adverb...See, I am a Chinese and I am still not sure about that. So please, don't use this as a shortcut... – Ran Feb 2 '18 at 8:50
  • kong4 means making a space, an interval, kong2 means nothing. – Daniel Yeung Feb 12 '18 at 7:34
  • There's no second tone for 空...I think you mean the first tone. kong1 also means sky, or something related to the sky. – Ran Feb 17 '18 at 14:43

Sure, there is.

Tone and stress in some languages can change the meaning of words in the way that phoneme contrasts do.

In ancient Chinese, some adjectives and nouns would be taken as verb, then their tone ought to fall down.

空气-air its originals is 气. 空 is the adjective component means “empty” which extended in meaning of “sky/under the sky”. It pronounced at the first tone, kōng. 空 in 空调 is the abbreviation of 空气.

空格 its originals is 格-space/room/cell/vacancy/blank. The adjective component ought to fall tone down to be the fourth kòng. It means “to make a space/room/vacancy/blank” (you should take 空 first as a verb to fall down then think about it turns to be a verb-as-adjective without rising up) .

Today, there are also other words with falling-tone-down-rule and all of them carried on as ancient Chinese. Like,

衣, yī, cloth ->衣, yì, wear

解衣(yī)衣(yì)我 put off his cloth to wear on me

衣(yì)锦还乡 wearing one’s brocade and return one’s native place (with honor)

We often say 有个空(kòng, there is a space/ an empty seat/a vacancy/a blank, and 有空 also means “be free at some moment”) for short in oral. But rarely say 衣(yì) today, some people says 衣(yī)锦还乡.

Tone in ancient Chinese and dialects are variety in contrast with in Mandarin, the standard one of the modern Chinese languages. And this falling-tone-down-rule is the pattern you seek.

It would be familiar with that “abuse(/s/) is to abuse(/z/)”.

(The comments below showed the discussion between me and @XL_at_China who had offered some good advises, of cause, critically. Makes I have to revise some inaccuracy above.)

  • “Tone in ancient Chinese and dialects are more complex than in Mandarin”, what do you mean? actually, Tones of Mandarin are more complex than Wu dialects, Xiang, even Min and Yue, let alone some dialects in northern China. – XL _At_Here_There Jan 24 '18 at 1:41
  • @XL_at_China I mean they all had deviation of tone (and pronunciation) if we assumed the Mandarin as a standard one of the modern Chinese languages. 入聲 (checked tone) has gone in Mandarin but still in Cantonese. One untrained on checked tone could not hear judging it. So it is correct that I write “complex than in Mandarin”. Your opinion is just another case to prove me right—not only more complex but also easier in some dialects. – Hao FU Jan 24 '18 at 2:11
  • 入声 is not tone, they all terminated with a stop,and Mandarin and dialects are all equal. What you say about 入声, is totally wrong, and your opinion on complexity is strange. – XL _At_Here_There Jan 24 '18 at 2:30
  • 中国语言学界99%的人是糊涂的,读那些人的书,可得小心。 – XL _At_Here_There Jan 24 '18 at 2:55
  • @XL_at_ChinaX I don't understand what definition of tone that you have. Would you please tell me how do you translate "四声调类"? I'm sure that we have a divergence focused on it. Check tone is a single syllable ended with stop or plosive, deal? I think you want to say "plosive is not a tone", right? Then tell me how to definite or translate 入声 in English, please? – Hao FU Jan 24 '18 at 3:07

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