I've always taught students that there is no question tone in Chinese like there is in English, in order to help them avoid pronouncing their questions with a rising tone at the end (like we do in English). However I am now questioning this as I realized that 吗, when it occurs after a 1st, 2nd, or 4th tone, is pronounced in a higher tone than 的, which is pronounced in an even higher tone than 嘛。

Examples, using the five-pitch tone notation:

你吃吗 = ni11 chi44 ma54

吃的 = chi55 de43

你吃嘛 = ni11 chi44 ma32

Does anyone have other examples of this? I'm not crazy, right?

  • I guess that the neutral tone is actually pronounced in a way somewhat affected by it's original tone? Jul 27, 2022 at 20:33
  • I don't think so: compare the pronunciation of 衣服 with 妈妈. 服's citation tone is 2nd tone. 妈´s citation tone is first tone. When their tone is neutralized, however, they are pronounced the same. While there is a well documented difference in pronunciation of neutral tone depending on the preceding tone, I'm talking about something different: a change in tonal quality based on the semantic content of a particle: the question particle 吗 is pronounced higher pitched than the "rhetorical question" particle 嘛。
    – Buddy L
    Jul 27, 2022 at 22:34
  • I don't understand the pinyin OP put here: ni11 chi44 ma54. What's it supposed to mean?
    – dan
    Jul 28, 2022 at 2:05
  • Tones are thought of as a pitch contour on a scale of 1-5, 1 being the lowest pitch and 5 being the highest pitch. So "ni11" simply means that the pitch contour starts at 1 and ends at 1. "ma54" means that it starts at the highest pitch and lowers down just a little bit, roughly one fifth of the way to the bottom. This is as opposed to the "ma" used in a rhetorical question, which I am arguing would be ma32, "32" just meaning that it starts at about the middle of the comfortable vocal range and falls down a little bit, from 3 to 2.
    – Buddy L
    Jul 28, 2022 at 16:11
  • I see, but I can't make the pronunciation right using this five pitch tone notation. It's kinda hard for me.
    – dan
    Jul 28, 2022 at 21:32

2 Answers 2


Lexical tones are known to superimpose onto the prosody of the intonational phrase to which they belong. They are often described as superficial crenellations on the surface of sea waves. The prosodic 'sea waves' wax and wane according to communicative intention and it's usually the phrase in a sentence with maximum focal weight which waxes or wanes the most. That will usually include the predicate together with any modal particles.

For example, when the communicative intention is one of polite interrogation, as marked by 吗, the intonation of the sentence (or just the predicate in focus) will be higher-pitched and this will lift the lexical tones higher up, especially weak-tone syllables. On the other hand, the intonation of an affirmative sentence or phrase, one marked by 的 for example, will push the tonal contour chain into more of a downward curve.

So I agree with your suspicions: this is ultimately related to the semantics of those particles. I would argue, as I have done, that those tonal differences you seem to hear are not somehow inherent to the particles themselves but are a result of the intonation associated with their use.

You might still wonder if those particles have inherited those intonational patterns to the point where intonation is now partly incorporated into the tonal profile of the particles themselves, even in isolation. It sounds unlikely to me, but it should be easy to prove/disprove in a study if anyone feels inclined to pursue the hypothesis further.


I think what you are asking about is the change of sound (變音/調) at the end of the questions. Similar to English, the sound is changed to distinguish a question from typical statements, comments, or exclamations. In Chinese, it is called "輕聲" - the sound of the ending word becomes rapid-short (短促) and lighter than normal.

輕聲 is often used/heard in situations - 1) a question ending with 吗(ma), 麽(me), 呢(ne), 嘛(ma); 2) the second word of a phrase with repetitive words - 叔叔(shū shu), 伯伯 (bó bo), 奶奶(nǎi nai), 毛毛(máo mao), a nickname of a person).

Note that 輕聲 is not another "tone", it must be used/employed with the ending of a phrase rather than occurring in a independent word.


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轻声 - 现代标准汉语发音时,某些字音在弱音节中会失去原有的声调,而变得轻而短促,这种声调就叫做轻声。轻声的实际调值取决于前接字的声调。

  • This really doesn't answer the question though -- whether or not you call 轻生 "neutral tone" or just "weak syllable", the point is that 嘛, 吗 and 呢 are pronounced with different tonal values. My hypothesis is that this is influenced by the meaning of these particles, not by the original tone.
    – Buddy L
    Jul 27, 2022 at 22:30
  • @BuddyL "This really doesn't answer the question though" was the reason why I started the writing with: "I think... " rather than a more positive tune. No offense, "轻生" seems a typo.
    – r13
    Jul 27, 2022 at 23:15
  • fair enough. I feel like if you're not trying to directly answer the question, a comment is more appropriate -- though I'm relatively new to the forum so I'll defer to your sense of etiquette. And yes -- 轻生 was definitely a typo, my mistake.
    – Buddy L
    Jul 27, 2022 at 23:34
  • @BuddyL The basic "etiquette" in a public forum is the mutual respect among the OP, the commenter/answer, and the reader, we can agree (upvote), disagree (down-vote), or comment on the other's idea, but outright critique and attack. You've been within the line until the last comment.
    – r13
    Jul 28, 2022 at 0:51
  • I really meant no disrespect -- my apologies if that wasn't clear.
    – Buddy L
    Jul 28, 2022 at 2:04

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