So I understand that in words like 妈妈,爸爸,弟弟,看看 and other two-syllable words made up of the same exact syllable, the second syllable almost always takes on the fifth, neutral tone. But what happens if you have a two-syllable word like 姐姐 in which the word is made up of the same exact third-tone syllable? Do you simply go by the usual, "third tone before third tone becomes second tone" so "jiějiě" becomes jiéjiě? Or does 姐姐, like the other example words, take on the neutral tone in the second syllable?

  • It's a very good question I think. Here is a list of all the entries from CEDICT that fit this description - there are 66 of them Some are common vocabulary, and others aren't. gist.github.com/goplayerjuggler/… Commented May 24 at 9:14

2 Answers 2


姐姐 would become jiě jie in pronunciation, with the neutral tone in the second syllable. It's an exception to the "third tone before another third tone becomes second tone" "rule."

I presume this is because it is another "family word."

I'm not sure if there's an exact rule regarding this. For example, as someone pointed out (my previous answer was wrong, I don't know what I was thinking), a word like “好好” would be hǎo hāo.

  • I don’t think people say hǎo hao in your 2nd example. It’s hǎo hǎo (sometimes also hǎo hāo).
    – kyc
    Commented May 23 at 17:07
  • 1
    @kyc Thank you. That was rather embarrassing as a native speaker.
    – Donald Wen
    Commented May 23 at 23:30
  • I added a link above with a list of all cases from a certain dictionary. The first few notable items are 久久, 了了, 井井, 便便, 仅仅, 冗冗. Commented May 24 at 8:58
  • @kyc Do people really say hǎo hǎo? I have never heard of it.
    – joehua
    Commented May 24 at 13:33
  • @joehua For example 好好学习 in this link is hǎo hǎo. For me, hǎo hǎo sounds formal (and more “correct”) but I often say hǎo hāo anyway.
    – kyc
    Commented May 24 at 21:40

I did a little parsing of CC-CEDICT in order to extract all entries of the form XX where the first character is read in the third tone. There were 78 such entries.

For nine of them, the neutral tone was given as the reading for the second character. (And it's noteworthy that all these nine terms are related to family or are baby talk.) For two others, other tones were given. For all the others, the third tone was given.

Here are the 11 cases that didn't have the third tone at the end:
㞎㞎 㞎㞎 [ba3 ba5] /(baby talk) poop/
奶奶 奶奶 [nai3 nai5] /(informal) grandma (paternal grandmother)/(respectful) mistress of the house/CL:位[wei4]/(coll.) boobies/breasts/
姐姐 姐姐 [jie3 jie5] /older sister/CL:個|个[ge4]/
姥姥 姥姥 [lao3 lao5] /(coll.) mother's mother/maternal grandmother/
嫂嫂 嫂嫂 [sao3 sao5] /older brother's wife/sister-in-law/(polite address to a younger married woman) sister/
嬸嬸 婶婶 [shen3 shen5] /wife of father's younger brother/aunt/
寶寶 宝宝 [bao3 bao5] /darling; baby/
數數 数数 [shu3 shu4] /to count/to reckon/
狗狗 狗狗 [gou3 gou1] /(coll.) dog; doggie/
癢癢 痒痒 [yang3 yang5] /to itch/to tickle/
老老 老老 [lao3 lao5] /maternal grandmother/same as 姥姥/

Given the discussion in the other answer by Donald Wen and its comments related to 好好, it seems CC-CEDICT gets this one wrong, as it gives: 好好 [hao3 hao3] - and it should be hao3 hao1. But several other dictionaries get this one wrong too.

I suspect that there may be a few other similar issues with these results. (Partly due to the conflict between the prescriptive and the descriptive approaches - Chinese dictionaries tend to use the former, mostly, in my experience. This is understandable, given the great diversity of spoken Putonghua.) So this list may well be a little inaccurate. Still, this may be the best easily available list of cases.

The list of all 78 entries is here.

It seems there is no general rule for how to read this sort of term. Probably the easiest for a student is to memorise the 11 cases, plus 好好, which are all fairly common words, and apply the standard rule of third tone sandhi ("two consecutive third tones") for all the other cases.

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