In the thread Do tones change at the end of an interrogative sentence? , one of the answers asserts:

SCALE KEY: 1 (low) to 5 (high). So 55 is a high level tone, 51 is a falling tone, 35 is rising, etc.

The second tone (textbook 25 or 35) often comes out sounding mid-level (33) or dipping-rising (434) -- this seems to be especially common at the end of a sentence.

Is this observation valid/true? If so, why does textbook-Mandarin teach that 2nd tone is 35?


XXX很难!XXX is so hard!

Here I understand 很 can be pronounced in a more drawn out/long way so as to stress the severity of hard.

你叫什么名字?What's your name?

Common phrase but 什么 (when spoken fast) sounds a bit like 33 to me.

我想去葡萄牙。I want to go to Portugal.

Pu2tao2ya2 also might be a good example of not completely saying 35 35 35 2nd tones.

I'm very interested in the ability of natives to, on the one hand, abide by the rules of lexical tones in daily speech, while on the other hand, modify/alter tones for the sake of convenience, pace, brevity, emotion etc. So when I stumbled upon this answer stating that 2nd tone isn't really pronounced 35 and instead is 33 / 434, I immediately wondered if it had any merit.

For sake of context, the same answer also included an observation on 1st tone's 55 modification in daily speech:

The first tone (textbook 55) is always level, but how high it is depends on the level of emphasis. It will be exceptionally high if you want to stress the word: 你喜不喜欢吃..中..餐 "Do you like Chinese food". It will often sound quite low as the second syllable in a two-syllable word (亚洲 "Asia" ya51 zhou22) and in other contexts where it doesn't need emphasis.

  • You need to provide a few examples for people to comprehend and respond.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 0:42
  • 3-3 (steady/mono sound, "--" shape) , 3-4 (steady up "/" shape), 3-2-4 (steady-down-up, "V" shape, with right leg a little higher), 3-1 (fast drop down with heavy ending. "\" shape). The third been the difficult one.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 21:43
  • @r13 No. Just wrong. 55, 35, 214, 51. Your notations do not accurately reflect the magnitude of pitch change in the classic sense.
    – L Parker
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 23:20
  • 3
    @r13 I am not questioning your (our) ability to say the tones, but the way you mark them with the tone letters. When you say 一 is 33 and 宜 is 34, you are implying 宜 ends off at a pitch higher than 一 (4>3), which is simply counterfactual. Please adhere to the convention set by Yuen Ren Chao.
    – L Parker
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 2:11
  • 1
    @r13 No Putonghua textbook would annotate the tone letters like you do - that is the only point I wish to make. Also, despite your condescending remark, I think I know if I require the help of a fellow native speaker or not. After all, what you see is only my alias.
    – L Parker
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 3:03

3 Answers 3

  1. A tone may, upon certain instances, take on a pitch different from its classic pitch. That is to say, while a pitch is absolute (in sound frequency), a tone is not.

    中餐 may change from the classic zhōng˥ ˥ cān˥ ˥ to zhōng˥ ˥ cān˧ ˧ when 中 is intended to be stressed by the speaker (not necessarily in a question).

    葡萄牙 may change from the classic Pú˧ ˥ táo˧ ˥ yá˧ ˥ to Pú˦ táo˥ yá˧ ˥ in rapid speech. The justification being, a sudden change in pitch requires too much effort. (I used only 1 pitch letter, not more, because they are supposed to be spoken quickly.)

    叫他 may change from the classic jiào˥ ˩ tā˥ ˥ to jiào˥ ˩ ta꜌ (i.e., 他 becomes neutral; unaccentuated. In this example, the tone changes too) when the speaker wishes to be imperative with the verb.

  2. Tone sandhi in Mandarin can be classified into facultative (自由音變) and obligate (不自由音變) (Zhang & Yang, 2007:6).* Obligate tone sandhi means it must be followed under all circumstances. The simplest example is obviously two neighbouring third-tones. More difficult examples include the application of neutral tones to distinguish polysemy (see the first point in this answer).

  3. Facultative tone sandhi, however, is optional (that is to say, the classic pitch and the altered pitch coexist, while sharing the exact same meaning, only used in different contexts). The examples 中餐, 葡萄牙, and 叫他 all belong to this category. They are not as well studied, documented, and taught, so much so mastering them would require 'language intuition' (語感).

  4. I actually find it difficult to comprehend how the second tone may take on the pitch ˧ ˧ or ˦ ˧ ˦. The answerer to the original question may a) be attempting to allocate a pitch for a second tone that is neutralised; or b) have thought of a context where facultative tone sandhi is applied. Either way, I cannot think of an example as of now.

Reference: Zhang Bennan & Yang Ruowei (2007). [普通話連讀音變]. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

* There is no English translation in the reference, so I borrowed the jargons 'facultative' and 'obligate' that are used to classify anaerobes in biology. An obligate anaerobe can only survive in an environment without oxygen, but a facultative anaerobe can survive with or without it.

  • 1
    L Parker There is a pitch letter rendering problem for me here. In order to read it properly I have to insert spaces in between the pitch letters. eg “˧˥” ⇒ “˧ ˥”. It could be helpful to insert the spaces directly within this answer - as was done already for another one of your excellent answers. Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 8:53
  • Perhaps the words optional and obligatory would be more natural? There's an example example here, by Olle Linge: hackingchinese.com/…. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 8:08

Aside from @L Parker's excellent answer, I can provide some empirical evidence.

In my experience, the second tone is pronounced with a clear 35 tone when the word is:

  • a single-character word, where a clear 2nd tone helps disambiguate (薄,毛,抗)
  • followed by a 5th tone (鼻子 bi2zi0,猴子 hou2zi0,葡萄 pu2tao0)
  • at the end of sentence

Then you can have altered pronunciations, e.g. 34, 3, 24, 45 in regular speech when the character with 2nd tone is in the middle of a sentence, sort of glossed over, or otherwise not stressed. For example:

  • 蛮好 34+hao3
  • 帮忙 bang1+45
  • 刚才 gang1+3/34

This topic has been studied. Significant changes from the citation tones can indeed be observed in conversational speech.

  1. Tone 2 becomes higher and changes its direction, approaching the tone 1 pitch contour, when put between tone 1 or 2 and any other full tone.
  2. The preceding rule also applies to the rising tone induced by the tone 3 sandhi rule.
  3. The exact pitch contour produced in rules 1 and 2 depends somewhat on the speed of the speech
  4. Similar changes also occur for the fourth tone.

I give a bit more detail on this in a different answer.

Reference: wikipedia.

These tone changes are best described as optional, as opposed to the well-known obligatory tone changes, such as the consecutive third tones rule. See also this article by Olle Linge that does a good job on explaining why this phenomenon occurs, and how students can use this knowledge.

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