From both a practical learning perspective and an interest in linguistics, I want to know whether there are any common patterns or "rules of thumb" that influence which tone is assigned to each character in Mandarin. (I'm not asking about sandhi tone shifts here.)

So far, I have not discovered or heard of any such patterns, but I'm hoping that tones are not purely random! Any statistically prominent patterns could help both with memorization and with decoding/guessing new characters. As context, most of my learning materials include Pinyin.

My question could be considered a tone-focused parallel to the understanding of how many characters were constructed through patterns of combinations of radicals. Thus, in that sense, written characters and their meanings are NOT entirely random.

As theoretical examples, specific tones ...

  • could be more frequently associated with certain categories of meaning or parts of speech
  • or could be frequently linked to the radical(s) in the character,
  • or perhaps influenced by some other factors I haven't imagined.

By the way, these are all related but none of them address what I am asking here.

2 Answers 2

  • Tones are not really associated with particular parts of speech, meanings, or radicals. I wouldn't waste your time looking for patterns on that basis.

  • The 2nd tone in Mandarin descends from words in Middle Chinese with the 阳平 (i.e., voiced 平) tone category. The voiced stops changed to unvoiced aspirated stops during this shift. So, as a result, there is a clear pattern of "missing" syllables. For example, there are dozens of characters in my dictionary pronounced píng and zero characters pronounced bíng. This is helpful when you're studying historical linguistics or multiple Chinese or sino-xenic languages. But if you're just studying Mandarin, it's probably only mildly helpful to know that certain initials almost never occur with 2nd tone.

  • Characters usually have a phonetic component. Characters that share a phonetic usually have some similarity in pronunciation, but it's extremely variable how informative this is. Maybe they share an initial consonant, or a place of articulation, or a final, or maybe a tone, or perhaps there are a small number of possible pronunciations. Or it could be borderline useless! For instance:

    • Characters with the phonetic are basically all huáng.

    • Characters in the phonetic series have a 4th tone.

    • Characters in the phonetic series could be zhī, zhì, or chī.

    • Characters with the phonetic could be... , tuō, tuó, chí, chǐ, , xiè, shī, shǐ, shé, , , , , , , or . I doubt that anyone on the planet would be helped by knowing this.

tl;dr: There are some weak patterns that you'll probably pick up on over time. But mostly you just need to memorize a lot of stuff. Sorry.

  • Chinese characters with a phonetic component is called 形声, one of the Six Ways. Two things. 1. While there are a lot of 形声 Chinese characters, there are also a lot of other Chinese characters that do not belong to this category. 2. All chinese characters with the same component started sounding the same, the pronunciations drifted as time wore on. Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 7:58
  • 1
    @fatpenguin Characters with the same phonetic component had similar pronunciations in Old Chinese, but not the same. Pages for hanzi in Wiktionary have tables "Characters in the same phonetic series" with reconstructed pronunciations for comparison. E.g. table in page for 之 lists 2 hanzi with reconstructed pronunciation *tjɯ, 4 hanzi with *tjɯs, 4 hanzi with *tʰjɯ, 1 hanzi with *djɯ and 1 hanzi with *diʔ. (Those are reconstructions by Zhengzhang, but on page for each hanzi, there is also Baxter–Sagart reconstruction.)
    – Arfrever
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 20:54
  • 1
    I've accepted this answer as best, even though it's very disappointing to me that there aren't strong common patterns to help with memorization or guessing pronunciation. Thanks
    – ybull
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 16:18

Basically, a language has two forms, spoken form and written form. In English, the written form primarily follows the spoken form. But this is not the case with the Chinese. It used Characters as its written form. A Chinese character that reads as one syllable does not directly indicate its phonemes (consonants, glides, vowels, and codas) and tone.

There are studies on the formation of Chinese characters to find out how many of the characters carry a certain type of sound information (叫做形声字). In this report, it says, about 72% of characters have sound information in various levels. 27% may have the information of initial, final, and tone.


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