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


2 Answers 2


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). Commented Jan 31, 2018 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
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 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
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 8:50
  • kong4 means making a space, an interval, kong2 means nothing. Commented Feb 12, 2018 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
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 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. Commented Jan 24, 2018 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
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 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. Commented Jan 24, 2018 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。 Commented Jan 24, 2018 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
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 3:07

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