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Tones in Asian Languages 🌏

Master the tones of Mandarin, Thai, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and switch between them with ease.

tones in asian languages

Introduction

The tones in each of the Asian languages present a different set of challenges for anybody who is learning them, regardless whether your own language has tones or not.

But there is actually one simple system that unifies the layout of tones in all languages, which I will present to you here, then get into the actual tones of each language.

This summary covers the following languages: 12 Chinese languages (including Mandarin and Cantonese), Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao. There are many other smaller tonal languages in the Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien families but they should also fall into a similar pattern. If you have data on these languages you can send them to me, and I can add them to the Large Tone Table at the end of this article.

This summary doesn't cover: Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Uyghur, Cambodian, Tagalog, Indonesian, or Malay. For one reason: they don't have tones. 😃 If you're tone averse, these are for you!

If you intend to learn Cambodian, you'll still want to learn the basics here as this will help you get up and running on being able to read Cambodian vowels, which depends on the class of consonants they appear with. This guide will help you decipher consonant class.

This summary doesn't cover Tibetan or Burmese either because tones are still developing in those languages, and they have few minimal pairs and tones are determined more or less by the syllable structure.

As full disclosure and to answer common questions I get, yes, I have studied all of the languages presented here. No, I have not investigated tone in African languages yet.

The objective of this article is several fold:

  1. If you're a learner of Mandarin, put your tones on a mental map so that you can pick up any other Chinese language easier, and get the tone right 90% of the time in Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, you name it.
  2. Thai and Chinese tonal systems seem alien to each other on the surface. This guide will unify them in your mind. Mandarin tones are very straightforward, but any learner of Thai has a great disadvantage to the Mandarin learner. This just comes down to different ways the two languages label and count the tones, which are based on the same framework.
  3. Vietnamese has a large number of Chinese loanwords. This guide will unify the Chinese/Cantonese tone system so that you can match your Vietnamese tones to Chinese with ease.

Terminology

Language Families

Sino-Tibetan: this family of 488 languages contains Burmese, Tibetan, and Chinese languages and dialects. Chinese languages that have more tones have a higher percentage of single-syllable words (like Cantonese). Chinese languages that have fewer tones have a higher percentage of two- or three-syllable words (like Mandarin).

Tai-Kadai: this family of 94 languages includes the languages on the borders between Thailand, China, Laos, and (the northern head of) Vietnam. It includes Lao and Thai which are closely related to each other.

Hmong-Mien: this family of 39 languages is spoken on the borders of China, Laos, and Vietnam and made up of many smaller languages.

Austroasiatic: this family of 159 languages consists of the Mon-Khmer and Viet-Muong languages of Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese. They are generally non-tonal. Vietnamese went through a period of tonogenesis at one point in its history, adopted a large number of Chinese loanwords from a period of Middle Chinese that predates the earliest of any of the modern Chinese languages. As such, the tones on Chinese words have been kept consistent in their adoption into Vietnamese. But since this happened over a very long period of time, Vietnamese now tends to have multiple pronunciations for most Chinese characters and a lot of these may be exceptions to the general rules we lay out here.

Japanese and Korean: technically these are language isolates, meaning they don't belong to any family of languages. They seem similar to each other, but there is not enough phylogenetic evidence available to prove that they are related. Japanese and Korean have pitch accent (fading in Korean), which is not like tone at all.

To put things into perspective for the western reader, the languages of English, Russian, Greek, and Hindi are all closely related in the same family, while Arabic and Hebrew are closely related in a different family. This article attempts to explain the tonal patterns of vastly different languages across several language families.

Pronunciation Terminology

Onset: this is the first sound in a syllable, like the d- in dog, or the pl- in play. We will learn about 4 kinds of onsets.

Class: tone categories can be split up into different classes. Generally speaking onsets determine tone class.

Coda: this is the last sound in a syllable, like the -g in dog, or the -ay in play. We will learn about 2 kinds of codas.

Category: this refers to a category of tone. Generally speaking codas determine tone category.

Voicing: there are two kinds of consonant voicing, voiced and unvoiced.

  • unvoiced /t/ and voiced /d/
  • unvoiced /k/ and voiced /ɡ/
  • unvoiced /p/ and voiced /b/

Aspiration: there are two kinds of aspiration, aspirated and unaspirated.

  • aspirated /tʰ/ and unaspirated /t⁼/
  • aspirated /kʰ/ and unaspirated /k⁼/
  • aspirated /pʰ/ and unaspirated /p⁼/
  • It's also possible for voiced consonants to have aspiration: bʰ dʰ ɡʰ, but this only survives in some languages of India. But we'll need to remember these in a few minutes, because historically they have affected modern tone systems.

Contour: this is the actual surface sound of the tone, such as high, low, rising, falling, etc. The underlying value of the tone across languages should be the same, but the actual contour will differ. The citation contour and the sandhi contour is usually different! The contour spoken in one city is sometimes different from the contour in another city! But the underlying tone class and category is the same.

Citation: this is the dictionary entry for a tone. Usually the underlying base tone. In most dictionaries this is given with a number, but it is not historically accurate. I will touch on briefly how citations got their numbers, but in order to understand the macro-picture, we need to start from an even deeper place.

Sandhi: tones change when they come in contact with other words. This is a confusing concept, but since it is very language specific, and relies on very surface situations, it is beyond the scope of this article.

The Sounds That You Hear

The sounds that you hear flowing through the air to your ear are what we call the most surface version. These sounds have gone through lots of changes and evolution, and interaction with the words around them to produce the sounds now traveling through the air.

You then interpret these sounds and derive meaning from them. But you can usually attach a meta-tag to these sounds. Even though a tone has changed into a new sandhi contour, you can probably go to a dictionary and look it up by its citation tone. This is META LEVEL ONE.

What this article teaches you is where these meta-level tones came from. In other words META LEVEL TWO. We'll start from meta-level 2 to show you how to get to meta-level 1, your dictionary citation forms. But we'll leave the sandhi surface forms for another article.

Another way to think of it is like evolution. Sounds evolve over time and they end up in vastly different places. When different writing systems try to write the tones, things get obscured and you can't see the relation between them. By analog, this is like showing you the cues to understand how elephants and whales and mice are all mammals.

It's time to get Meta-Meta! ☕

Syllable Structure

The syllable is made up of three parts:

Onset: This is the first consonant in a syllable. Sometimes it's a cluster like pl-, str-, cr-. The onset affects the tone class. When a syllable starts with a vowel, it has an empty onset usually as a glottal stop. In many writing systems, this is actually written. Since it is empty, not surprisingly it usually looks similar to a zero: Korean ㅇ, Thai อ, Lao ອ. Thai is not as curvy as say, Burmese, so this happens to be the most circular shape in Thai. For comparison, the same onset in Cambodian is shaped significantly different: អ.

Core: This part of the syllable consists of a core vowel that can have a w-/y- glide in front of it, or a -w/-y glide behind it. These glides are sometimes written as -i-/-o-/-u- depending on the language and spelling customs. They have little bearing on determining tone though and we will largely ignore this part of the syllable.

Coda: The end of the consonant affects the tone if it ends in a stop consonant. This puts the whole syllable into a separate category.

Tone Category

In the following table, I use the vowel -a- for simplification. In fact, any vowel can take its place.

Continuous CodaStopped Coda
Category 1
-a, -am, -an, -anh, -ang
Category 2
-a, -am, -an, -anh, -ang
Category 3
-a, -am, -an, -anh, -ang
Category 4
-ap, -at, -ak
Why do we care about category?

We care because words that share the same stopped endings all end up with the same tone patterns. Words without stopped endings, all share 3 kinds of other tone patterns. Not only that, but if you follow a single word into a different language or dialect and observe how its pronunciation changes, you can easily bet that all of the words in the same category all have the exact same pronunciation change in the other language. In other words, you can now guess the pronunciation of hundreds or thousands of words with a single observation.

Tone Class

The combination of voicing and aspiration gives us four possibilities:

HIGH
unvoiced
aspiratedpʰ, tʰ, cʰ, kʰ
unaspiratedp, t, c, k
LOW
voiced
aspiratedbʰ, dʰ, jʰ, ɡʰ
unaspiratedb, d, j, ɡ
m, n, ny, nɡ, l, r, w, y

If a glottal stop appeared before w- or -y, they could move up to the HIGH class and this is how Mandarin words starting with w- or y- can appear in either class. In Modern Thai, any of the letters in a LOW class can move to HIGH class by adding h- before the consonant.

Since these sounds have changed over time, what we find now in the modern languages is that bʰ, dʰ, jʰ, ɡʰ no longer exist. Instead each of them have become: pʰ, tʰ, cʰ, kʰ.

In Modern Mandarin, all the voiced sounds have become unvoiced. They are still spelled b, d, z/j, g in pinyin though, but these sounds represent the IPA unvoiced p, t, c, k. Meanwhile, pinyin spelling prefers to drop the small ʰ from the aspirated consonants, simply as p, t, c/q, k.

Modern Mandarin:

HIGH
unvoiced
aspiratedp, t, c/q
unaspiratedb, d, z/j, g, k, w, y
LOW
voiced
aspiratedp, t, c/q
unaspiratedm, n, l, r, w, y

In Modern Mandarin there is only one tone that belongs to the LOW class (we'll get to it), so this means that words that start b-, d-, z-, j-, g-, k- (with just one exception k-) just won't show up in this LOW class tone. The only ones that are, are those that migrated from another spot (and I'll show you how that happened).

The last group "unaspirated" is what I call the "mnl group". I'll use this term again with the table of many Chinese dialects.

I know, I know, nobody ever referred to high or low class sounds in Mandarin, so why am I doing this? This is in the grander scheme of things and I'm not making this up. It's actually there. It's just an unnecessary thing to learn for anybody just focused on Mandarin. I got fluent in Mandarin without having to know it. But I can't keep things straight when I start learning more languages. I need a framework to help me. Otherwise, and in case you're like me, I have a tendency to just give up on it too easily. This article is to help me just as much as it is to help you.

Notice in the Modern Thai table below, how the unaspirated high class is called "MID" in Thai. Doesn't really matter what name you want to call it, but this is what teachers call it and this is where it fits into the scheme of things. I've split the table up into point of articulation from lips to throat (front to back), followed by the fricatives f, s, h.

HIGH
unvoiced
high classpʰ ผ
hm หม
tʰ ถ ฐ
hn หน
hl หล
cʰ ฉkʰ ข ฃ
hng หง
hw หว
f ฝs ส ศ ษh ห
mid classb บปd ด ฎ t ต ฏj จg ก
ʔ/y อ
LOW
voiced
low classpʰ ภพtʰ ท ธ ฑ ฒcʰ ช ฌkʰ ค ฆ ฅf ฟs ซh ฮ
low classm มn น ณ
l ล ฬ (ฦ)
r ร (ฤ)
y ย ญng ง
w ว

As demonstrated above, you can move a sonorant to a high class by just adding ห h- in front of it. This doesn't actually change the pronunciation of the consonant, but will now let these voiced sonorants adopt high class tones. The same rules apply to Lao (notice the newly created combinations and ຫຼ). Generally speaking, Lao is a simplified version of Thai spelling. Since the alphabet originates from India, Lao simply discards a lot of traditional letters that Thai keeps from the original Indian spelling which results in a lot fewer letters. Once you learn how to read Thai, it will only take you a few minutes to learn how to read Lao.

Modern Lao:

HIGH
unvoiced
high classpʰ ຜ
hm ໝ
tʰ ຖ
hn ໜ
hl ຫຼ
hny ຫຍkʰ ຂ
hng ຫງ
hw ຫວ
f ຝs ສh ຫ
mid classb ບ
p ປ
d ດ
t ຕ
j ຈg ກ
ʔ/y ອ
LOW
voiced
low classpʰ ພtʰ ທy ຢkʰ ຄf ຟs ຊh ຮ
low classm ມn ນ
l ລ
r ຣ
ny ຍng ງ ຫງ
v/w ວ

This orthographic complexity just doesn't exist for Mandarin. If we want to write a word like in a high tone (which would be a phonological exception), we just write the tone over the letter as it's pronounced: whereas Thai and Lao would require prefixing it with h-.

Why do we care about class?

We care for the same reasons that we care about category. If you follow one word into another language and observe what's different, chances are that all words that match will have the exact same change. By tracking all of these changes between languages, we can lay out the minimum number of things to track: category times class, or 4x4. Actually instead of 16, we can actually cut that into half. I'll show you how to keep track of 8 class categories with a maximum of 2 exceptions depending on the language.

Tones in Southeast Asian Languages Follow the link in "Further Reading" to view the article this map appears in.

Combine Tone Category and Class

Note that languages may not express each of the possible syllables in the following table. The -nh ending (borrowed from Vietnamese spelling) is like Spanish ñ, representing the nasal version of a c or j IPA: /ɟ/ (which are halfway between ch and k, dge and ɡ, respectively by voicing).

ClassContinuous CodaStopped Coda
Category 1Category 2Category 3Category 4
HIGH
unvoiced
aspiratedpʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰap, tʰat, cʰat, kʰak
unaspiratedpam, tan, canh, kangpam, tan, canh, kangpam, tan, canh, kangpap, tat, cat, kak
LOW
voiced
aspirated
(now unvoiced)
pʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰam, tʰan, cʰanh, kʰangpʰap, tʰat, cʰat, kʰak
unaspiratedmam, nan, nyan, nɡang, lan, ran, wang, yangmam, nan, nyan, nɡang, lan, ran, wang, yangmam, nan, nyan, nɡang, lan, ran, wang, yangmap, nat, nyat, nɡak, lat, rat, wak, yak

Now, let's simplify the table and add on the Chinese names for all the headings. In order not to crowd the table, I'll just use the bilabials (p and m) as placeholders from each set for all related sounds.

ClassCategory 1 平Category 2 上Category 3 去Category 4 入
HIGH CLASS
Unvoiced 陽
pʰ...m
p...m
pʰ...m
p...m
pʰ...m
p...m
pʰ...p
p...p
LOW CLASS
Voiced 陰
pʰ...m
m...m
pʰ...m
m...m
pʰ...m
m...m
pʰ...p
m...p

Writing Tones: Start With Mandarin!

The easiest of the tonal languages, and by far the most popular and most widely spoken language is Mandarin Chinese. It is like the English of the east. It has a simple tonal system, a simple grammar, and a simple sound system. It is different from western languages, but it is simple in structure.

We write Mandarin out phonetically using the pinyin alphabet. The tones written in pinyin resemble the actual tone. Since it visually represents the tone, it's a very easy system to learn and use.

Familiarize yourself with the following, if you haven't already:

MANDARIN TONE NUMBERCONTOURPINYIN SAMPLEDESCRIPTIONTONE BARS
1āhigh flat˥ [⁵⁵]
2árising˧˥ [³⁵]
3↘↗ǎdipping˨˩˦ [²¹⁴]
4àfalling˥˩ [⁵¹]

IPA Style Tone Writing

Note that some authors do not use the visual method of Mandarin to represent tones and instead use the IPA standard (International Phonetic Alphabet). This is especially true for most Thai romanization systems. Consult the following chart to understand how this works. Moving tones that change pitch simply combine a high or low together. If this is hard to read for you, just focus on the last half of the symbol: the last half of ^ is falling and the last half of \ is low.

CONTOURIPA NOTATIONDESCRIPTIONTONE BARS
áhigh flat˥ ˦ [⁵⁵ ⁴⁴]
āmid flat˧ [³³]
àlow flat˩ ˨ [¹¹ ²²]
ǎrising˦˥ ˧˥ ˩˥ ˧˦ ˨˦ ˨˧ ˩˧ ˩˨
[⁴⁵ ³⁵ ¹⁵ ³⁴ ²⁴ ²³ ¹³ ¹²]
âfalling˥˦ ˥˧ ˥˩ ˦˧ ˦˨ ˧˨ ˧˩ ˨˩
[⁵⁴ ⁵³ ⁵¹ ⁴³ ⁴² ³² ³¹ ²¹]

The disadvantage of this system is that it can't properly represent movements to or from a half height tone, what we call high rising, low falling, etc. Though this can be accomplished through extended sets of Unicode character combinations, few if any authors actually know or use them: a᷄, a᷅, a᷆, a᷇, a᷈, a᷉, a᷃. So not only can you not type them, they are admittedly not that easy to read either. As can see from the table above, the other disadvantage is that you cannot be precise with in-between tones without using tone bars or tone numbers.

The Best Way to Write Tones

When working across languages and mapping things out, in my personal opinion, the best way is to simply use the tone bars unless you're working exclusively within a certain language.

With Unicode support on your computer/device, they should appear linked together. Although some complex tones like this Mandarin 3rd dipping tone which uses 3 bars in a row (˨˩˦) may appear to have a broken link between the 2nd and 3rd bar. This really depends on your device and how current the system that you're using. I assume that smartphones just aren't going to have full support for rarely used sections of the Unicode character set since it is time consuming and consumes memory.

I have a spreadsheet called "Unicode" where I keep all my characters, one per cell, and I copy and paste in order to type. This just wouldn't be possible on a handheld device though, since speed and productivity largely dictate what device I choose.

As you read on, you'll discover why you'll want to avoid "tone counters" (like Tone 1, Tone 2, Tone 3).

I can only think of one instance where tone counters are beneficial: if that's the one and only language you'll ever be using (that has tones). If you are exposed or working with more than one language, then it's a bad idea.

Review the Basic Concepts

  1. A tone class is something called "high" or "low" based on the first consonant of a syllable.
  2. There are three tone categories that do not end in a stop consonant. They can all have "high" or "low" tone classes.
  3. There is one tone category that ends in a stop consonant. This tone category can also have "high" or "low" tone classes. And there is one upcoming exception that you will learn for specific languages.
  4. Tones can be written by "tone number", "tone contour over the letter" in either visual format or IPA format, or as a "tone bar". We're going to stick with tone bars because they're easiest to understand at first glance, that is, 一目了然 yímù liǎorán.

So now that you have the basics down, let's get into how everything fits together.

Word Pronunciation vs Tone Pronunciation

You may be wondering how you can transfer the sounds of the whole word to another language like we're learning for tones. Is it possible? To a certain extent, yes, but often times, no. It is very similar to learning how I can learn that an Italian -uo- transfers to a Spanish -ue-, or a Spanish h- transfers to a Portuguese f-.

The tones are probably the hardest part. So once you understand this system, it puts you on level footing for switching between European languages (how individual consonants and vowels transfer), which leaves you with just focusing on learning the exceptions.

It's an extensive topic and I'll assemble all my loose notes into a forthcoming article to cover the non-tonal aspects of the syllable.

cole-hutson-50986-unsplash

The Universal Tone Table

Traditional Chinese System

平 píng上 shǎng去 qù入 rùp
🌜 陰 High陰平陰上陰去陰入
🌞 陽 Low陽平陽上陽去陽入

Any character or word can show up in one of the cells. Any Chinese character that appears there, pretty much "belongs" there. Let's use animals as an example. Examples of animal words in each cell:

平 píng上 shǎng去 qù入 rùp
🌞 陽 High🐔 雞 chicken
kei
🐶 狗 dog
kəu
🐰 兔 rabbit
tʰu
🐤 雀 sparrow
tsewk
🌜 陰 Low🐮 牛 cow
ngyuw
🐴 馬 horse
ma
🐘 象 elephant
zyang
🐝 蜜 bee
mit

Notice how the Middle Chinese pronunciation (~2000 years ago) of chicken, dog, and sparrow (kei, kəu, tsewk) do not have aspiration. This means that they could be considered "middle class" when we need to make that distinction. For most languages, we don't need to. We'll only need to make small adjustments in the following situations:

  • Thai: recall the "middle class" for the first column
  • Lao: recall the "middle class" for the third column
  • Vietnamese: treat the "nasals/liquids" in "low class" as "high class" including the word for "cow" here, but not other consonants.

We'll get back to each of these points in turn later on.

This table is supposed to be the control constant for translating tones between languages. Every time you learn a new word, you should put it on this table and learn its location on the table.

Very rarely do things get moved to other cells in the table. Mandarin is the only language that does it to a large extent because it has lost so many tones. Some Chinese languages have lost the two middle Low tones and so there tends to be some migration from there. But for the general rule of thumb, this is the table you memorize and keep with you forever.

So when you learn "elephant 象" you should put it into the 去 Column as a Low Class. You'll get the tone exactly right in any Chinese language. Since the word for elephant happens to be cognate across language families into Thai (ช้าง), you'll learn that this table allows the word to fall into place perfectly, giving you both its tone contour and its spelling.

tones in asian languages

Mandarin

A lot of things have happened to arrive to Modern Mandarin:

  1. All the stop endings have disappeared.
  2. The words that originally had those stop endings in 入 have merged into 1 of the other 4 remaining tones.
  3. Two other tones have disappeared by merging: Low 上 has merged with 去, but a few words have merged with High 上. Low 去 has merged with High 去.

Counting Tones in Mandarin

In Modern Mandarin a lot of tones have disappeared over time. This means there are no syllables that end in -p, -t, -k, or -m.

🌞 陽 HighTone 1Tone 3Tone 4x
🌜 陰 LowTone 2xxx

Notice how Mandarin doesn't count the tones across in a row. Mandarin first counts the first category high and low, then the next two categories. Since all other categories have disappeared, the words in those categories have migrated. What happened to them?

  • A lot of consonants in Mandarin only have High Class: b, d, g, j, k, s, sh, z, zh; which means they rarely show up in Tone 2.
  • A lot of 入 Category words have migrated into those Tone 2 positions absent from the high class sounds in the point above, and all of these are listed in the next section below. For example, and and are all normal High class words in Mandarin. But is not! Any word in Mandarin pronounced is a migration from 入 Category, which means it was originally pronounced dip, dit, or dik.

Tone Contours in Mandarin

🌞 陽 Highā ˥ǎ ˨˩˦à ˥˩x
🌜 陰 Lowá ˧˥xxx

The Animal Names in Mandarin

🌜 陰 High🐔 雞 jī ˥🐶 狗 gŏu ˨˩˦🐰 兔 tù ˥˩🐤 雀 què ˥˩
🌞 陽 Low🐮 牛 niú ˧˥🐴 馬 mǎ ˨˩˦🐘 象 xiàng ˥˩🐝 蜜 mì ˥˩

Notice how the tones match in the 上 category, the 去 category, and how the 入 category matches the 去 category. This last point is not a general rule you can depend on. The tones that 入 words end up with in Mandarin is quite random. Though the next section on Tone Manifestation in Mandarin can help you determine many of them.

So let's revise our table:

🌜 陰 High🐔 雞 jī ˥🐶 狗 gŏu ˨˩˦
🐴 馬 mǎ ˨˩˦
🐰 兔 tù ˥˩
🐘 象 xiàng ˥˩
🐤 雀 què ˥˩
🐝 蜜 mì ˥˩
x
🌞 陽 Low🐮 牛 niú ˧˥xxx

Examples of Tone Manifestation in Mandarin

If you're only learning Chinese, you can skip this section. This section is supposed to give a tie-in to the other Southeast Asian languages.

If you have or are learning Thai/Lao and want to eventually learn Mandarin in the future, this section will be of great value to you. Come back in a few days to get our PDF Download.

The following Mandarin words have no 2nd Tone (they are all High Category):

  • ban, bang, ben, bian, biao, bin, bing, bu
  • che, cui
  • dai, dan, dang, dao, dian, diao, ding, dong, dou, duan, dun
  • gan, gang, gao, gen, geng, gong, gou, gu, gua, guai, guan, guang, gui, gun
  • ha, hong, hun, jian, jiang, jun
  • kai, kan, kao, ken, kong, kou, ku, kua, kuai, kuan, kuang, kun
  • sa, sai, san, sang, sen, si, song, sou, suan, sun, suo
  • shai, shan, shang, shou, shua, shuai, shuan, shuang
  • wai, wo, xin, xiu, yong
  • zai, zang, zeng, zi, zong, zou, zuan, zui, zun
  • zhan, zhang, zhen, zheng, zhong, zhua, zhuan, zhuang, zhui, zhun

Other than the individual words che and cui, I noticed that the k- group is the only aspirated group here.

Missing from the set above are those words that do have 2nd Tone. But the reason they exist at all, is because they migrated from a 入 Category! If you compare any of the following words against Cantonese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean, they'll all still have their p/t/k endings (p/t/c/ch/k in Vietnamese, p/l/k in Korean, u/t/k in Japanese):

  • bá, bái, báo, bié, bó, dá, dé, dí, dié, gé, guó, huó, jí, jiá, jiáo, jié, jú, jué, ké, páo, shí (all except 時), shú, sú, xí, xié, zhé, zhí, zhú, zuó

The following Mandarin words have no 1st Tone (they are all Low Category). Notice how l, m, n, r are all voiced sounds:

  • hai, hang, hao
  • lai, lan, lang, leng, li, lian, liang, liao, lin, ling, long, lu, lü, luan, lun
  • mai, man, mang, mei, meng, mian, miao, min, ming, mou, mu
  • na, nai, nan, nang, nao, nei, neng, neng, ni, nian, niang, niao, nong, nu, nü, nuan, nuo
  • ran, rang, ren, rong, rou, ru, ruan, rui, run

Missing from the set above are those words that do have 1st Tone, because they migrated from a 入 Category:

  • chī, chū, chuō, hē, hēi, lēi, pāi

Some words that appear in first tone are onomatopeic in nature, so they don't follow the rules of the rest of the language (the equivalent of adding h- in Thai):

  • cū, lāo, mā, māo, mēn, mī, mō, niū, pīng & pāng 🏓, rāng, rēng

Special mention:

  • Most words beginning with f- and ending in a vowel migrated from a 入 Category
  • All of the following words migrated from a 入 Category and in fact make up the only tone that exist for its particular pronunciation: cā, cè, cù, jué, lè, liè, lüè, miè, niē, niè, nüè, piē, qià, quē, què, rì, ruò, sè, shuō, shuò, tè, xue (all tones), yue (all tones), zé, zéi.

Finally these are the left over words that appear in both 1st and 2nd Tone (both High and Low). What is apparent to me is that all of these are aspirated (except z, zh, w, y):

  • cai, can, cang, cao, cong, cun
  • cha, chai, chan, chang, chao, chen, cheng, chong, chou, chuan, chuang, chui, chun
  • pan, pao, pei, pen, peng, pi, pian, piao, po, pu
  • qi, qian, qiang, qiao, qin, qing, qiu, qu, quan
  • shao, she, shen, sheng, shui, sui
  • tai, tan, tang, tao, tian, tiao, ting, tong, tou, tu, tui, tuo
  • wan, wang, wei, wen, wu, ya, yan, yang, yao, ye, yi, yin, ying, you, yu, yuan, yun
  • xia, xian, xiang, xiao, xing, xiong, xu, xuan, xun
  • za, zan, zao,
  • zha, zhai, zhao, zhou, zhuo

Learn to speak Chinese (Beijing) or Chinese (Taiwan) today!

tones in asian languages

Taiwanese Hokkien (Southern Min) (閩南臺灣話)

Counting Tones in Taiwanese

🌜 陰 High1234
🌞 陽 Low5x78

Tone Contours in Taiwanese

🌜 陰 Higha ˥á ˥˧à ˨˩ak ˧˨
🌞 陽 Lowâ ˧˥xā ˧a̍k ˦

How to Memorize Taiwanese Tones in Order

平 1 (5)上 2去 3去 7入 4入 8
Citation
(↗)
Sandhi

Animal Names in Taiwanese

🌜 陰 High🐔 雞 gue ˦🐶 狗 gáu ˥˧
🐴 馬 bhé ˥˧
🐰 兔 tòo ˨˩🐤 雀 qiok ˧˨
🌞 陽 Low🐮 牛 ghû ˨˦x🐘 象 qiūnn ˧🐝 蜜 bhi̍t ˦

Learn to speak Taiwanese Hokkien today!

tones in asian languages

Cantonese: Hong Kong (粵語香港話)

Counting Tones in Cantonese

🌜 陰 High1
2
3
1 or 7 →
3 or 8 →
🌞 陽 Low4
5
6
6 or 9 →

Tone Contours in Cantonese

🌜 陰 High˥˧˧˥˧˥
˧
🌞 陽 Low˨˩˩˧˨˨

How to Memorize Cantonese Tones

Both Classes

Animal Names in Cantonese

入 short / 入 long
🌜 陰 High
🐔 雞 gai ˥˧

🐶 狗 gau ˧˥
🐰 兔 tou ˧
🐤 雀 dzoek ˧
🌞 陽 Low
🐮 牛 ngau ˨˩

🐴 馬 maa ˩˧
🐘 象 dzoeng ˨
🐝 蜜 mat ˨

Learn to speak Cantonese today!

tones in asian languages

Thai

Counting Tones in Thai

入 short / 入 long
🌜 陰 High
🌗 Middle
🌞 陽 Low
unmarked◌่
Tone "1"
written above the onset
◌้
Tone "2"
written above the onset
unmarked

Thai actually has a lot of tones. But only 2 are counted. Thai counts tones at the Meta level rather than at the contour level. This is why it is confusing for students. But once you understand the Meta level categories, then the tones should be easier to master.

It's worth mentioning that Thai also has a 3rd tone written above the onset in Thai as ◌๊ and a fourth tone written as ◌๋. These fall outside the normal Thai tonal system and are only used for writing words of foreign origin.

Tone Contours in Thai

平 ◌ 上 ◌่ 去 ◌้ 入 short ◌ก / 入 long ◌าก
🌜 陰 High
🌗 Middle
˧˥
ก ˧
ข่/ก่ ˩ข้/ก้ ˥˧ ขก ˩ / กาก ˩
🌞 陽 Low ˧ค่ ˧˩ค้ ˦˥คก ˦˥ / คาก ˧˩

Remember the letters that govern each class:

HIGH
unvoiced
high classpʰ ผ
hm หม
tʰ ถ ฐ
hn หน
hl หล
cʰ ฉkʰ ข ฃ
hng หง
hw หว
f ฝs ส ศ ษh ห
mid classb บปd ด ฎ t ต ฏj จg ก
ʔ/y อ
LOW
voiced
low classpʰ ภพtʰ ท ธ ฑ ฒcʰ ช ฌkʰ ค ฆ ฅf ฟs ซh ฮ
low classm มn น ณ
l ล ฬ (ฦ)
r ร (ฤ)
y ย ญng ง
w ว

How to Memorize Thai Tones

World-class polyglot Stu Jay Raj claims that one of the easiest ways to remember Thai tones is to think of the High, Middle, and Low class as classes of society. Here is my retelling of his story:

The High Class people are always rising higher (rising tone), while the Middle and Low class stay where they are (flat tone).

When the first tone ◌่ falls down on them, it's like calamity striking out of the sky. The High and Middle classes are actually quite fragile and fall straight to hell (low tone), while the Low classes don't fall that hard (falling tone).

When Robin Hood arrives with the feather in his hat ◌้, he changes social class. He takes from the rich and gives to the poor, causing the High and Middle classes to fall, but the Low class to rise.

Get Stu Jay's Book Here

How to Memorize Thai Letters

Again, Stu Jay Raj gives us insight. He says that the High Class people are inward looking rather than outward looking. Likewise, several Thai letters show us this inward-looking High Class letters:

ผ ถ ฝ

And outward-looking Low Class letters (the 3 pronunciations happen to match the 3 above):

พภ ท ฟ

Also, to tell the difference between ด/d and ค/kʰ is the upward or downward looking loop inside the letter. The downward looking loop is Low Class. The upward looking is not an aspirate, so it is not high, but rather Mid Class which is higher than Low Class.

Animal Names in Thai

Thai is in the Tai-Kadai language family, so vocabulary is just going to be different, that is, these words are not cognate with Chinese. Despite this, we can fill in any kind of vocabulary and be able to see how the writing system dictates the pronounced tones. 🐘 seems to be the only one that is cognate and stays in the same cell position.

🌜 陰 High
🌗 Middle
🐶 หมา mǎa
🐔 ไก่ kài
🐝 ผึ้ง phʉ̂ng
🐸 กบ kòp
🌞 陽 Low
🐒 ลิง ling
🐘 ช้าง cháang
🐴 ม้า máa
🐤 กระจอก kràjɔ̀ɔk

Learn to speak Thai today!

tones in asian langauges

Lao

Tone Contours in Lao

入short/入long
🌜 陰 High
🌗 Middle
˨˦ຂ່ ˧ຂ້ ˧˩
ກ້ ˥˧
ຫັກ ˦ / ຫາກ ˧˩
🌞 陽 Lowຄາ ˦ຄ່າ ˧ຄ້າ ˥˧ຮັກ ˧ / ຮາກ ˥˩

Remember the letters that govern each class:

HIGH
unvoiced
high classpʰ ຜ
hm ໝ
tʰ ຖ
hn ໜ
hl ຫຼ
hny ຫຍkʰ ຂ
hng ຫງ
hw ຫວ
f ຝs ສh ຫ
mid classb ບ
p ປ
d ດ
t ຕ
j ຈg ກ
ʔ/y ອ
LOW
voiced
low classpʰ ພtʰ ທy ຢkʰ ຄf ຟs ຊh ຮ
low classm ມn ນ
l ລ
r ຣ
ny ຍng ງ ຫງ
v/w ວ

Animal Names in Lao

🌜 陰 High🐶 ຫມາ mǎ
🐔 ໄກ່ kai
🐝 ເຜິ້ງ pho᷅eng
🐸 ກົບ kób
🌞 陽 Low
🐒 ລິງ líng
🐘 ຊ້າງ sa᷆ng
🐴 ມ້າ ma᷆
🐤 ກະຈອກ káchôk

tones in asian languages

Vietnamese: Hànôi

Counting Tones in Vietnamese of Hànôi

🌜 陰 Highngang
🌞 陽 Low mnl
hỏisắcsắc
🌞 陽 Lowhuyềnngãnặngnặng

Onsets with mnl in the first tone category move up to High. Since the onset for 🐮 in the Chinese borrowed word is pronounced with ng (an mnl sound), it moves up to the High category. The Vietnamese native word is a completely unrelated root.

Tone Contours in Vietnamese of Hànôi

🌜 陰 Higha ˧ả ˧˨˧á ˨˦ák ˧˥
🌞 陽 Lowà ˨˩ã ˧'˥ạ ˧'˨ạ ˨˩

Notice that in Vietnamese the following are not tone marks but rather different kinds of vowels: ă â ê ô ơ ư

They are combined with tone marks to make the following letters: ấ ầ ẩ ẫ ậ ắ ằ ẳ ẵ ặ ế ề ể ễ ệ ố ồ ổ ỗ ộ ớ ờ ở ỡ ợ ứ ừ ử ữ ự

Animal Names in Vietnamese of Hànôi

🌜 陰 High
🐔 雞 kê
🐮 牛 ngưu

🐶 狗 cẩu
🐰 兔 thố
🐤 雀 tước
🌞 陽 Low
🐴 馬 mã
🐘 象 tượng
🐝 蜜 mật

Learn to speak Vietnamese (Northern) or Vietnamese (Southern) today!

tones in asian languages

Wu: Shanghai (吳語上海話)

Counting Tones in Shanghainese

🌜 陰 High124
🌞 陽 Low35

Tone Contours in Shanghainese

🌜 陰 Hightá ˥˧ta ˧˦ta' ˥
🌞 陽 Lowna ˨˧na' ˩˨

All tones in Shanghainese can be determined by the onset consonant of the word. The only minimal pair tone that needs to be marked is the first tone.

Animal Names in Shanghainese

🌜 陰 High
🐔 雞 ji ˥˧

🐶 狗 geu ˧˦
🐰 兔 tu ˧˦
🐤 雀 jia' ˥
🌞 陽 Low
🐮 牛 nieu ˨˧

🐴 馬 ma ˨˧
🐘 象 xhiann ˨˧
🐝 蜜 miî' ˩˨

We don't have Shanghainese yet, but you can learn to speak Wenzhounese today!

tones in asian languages

Eastern Min: Fuzhou (閩東福州話)

Tone Contours in Fuzhou

🌜 陰 High˥˧˨˩˧˨˦
🌞 陽 Low˥˧˧˨˦˨˥

Animal Names in Fuzhou

🌜 陰 High
🐔 雞 gie ˥

🐶 狗 gɛu ˧
🐰 兔 tou ˨˩˧
🐤 雀 cuɔ' ˨˦
🌞 陽 Low
🐮 牛 ngu ˥˧

🐴 馬 ma ˧
🐘 象 cuɔng ˨˦˨
🐝 蜜 mi' ˥

tones in asian languages

Hakka: Sixian (客家四縣話)

Counting Tones in Sixian Hakka

🌜 陰 High1345
🌞 陽 Low2xx6

Tone Contours in Sixian Hakka

🌜 陰 High˧˥˥˧˥˨
🌞 陽 Low˩xx˥

Animal Names in Sixian Hakka

🌜 陰 High🐔 雞 gié ˨˦🐶 狗 gièu ˧˩
🐴 馬 ma ˧˩
🐰 兔 tū ˥
🐘 象 xiong ˥
🐤 雀 jiok ˨
🌞 陽 Low🐮 牛 ngiu̠ ˩xx🐝 蜜 mēt ˥

Learn to speak Hakka (Sixian) or Hakka (Hailu) today!

Large Tone Table

tones in asian languages

In the following table I use contour numbers instead of tone bars as it's easier on the eyes to determine the exact height of each tone when comparing data. Note that in non-standard languages and dialects, pitches can often differ from person to person by as much as one number, in other words, person A may say '32' ˧˨ but person B may say '21' ˨˩.

Southeast Asia🌜🌞
LanguageLocation陰平陰上陰去陰入 / long陽平陽上陽去陽入 / long
Thai ไทยBangkok กรุงเทพ35
3
1153133314545, 31
Lao ລາວVientiane ວຽງຈັນ243331
53
4, 3144335333, 51
Tai Lü ᦅᧄᦺᦑᦟᦹᧉ (傣仂, ไทลื้อ, Lự)Xishuangbanna 西雙版納, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam55133555 / 3551113333
Hmong (Hmoob)China, Laos
final tone letter in superscript
5b34v31s53j1s31g1m, 213d
Vietnamese tiếng ViệtHà Nội33323243521
33
3'53'221
Chinese🌜🌞
Language
Dialect
Location陰平陰上陰去陰入陽平陽上陽去陽入
Mandarin 官話Běijīng 北京552145155, 35, 214, 513551
214
5151
35
Mandarin 官話Hārbīn 哈爾濱44213532453
213
53
Mandarin 官話Dàlián 大連312213532133553
213
5353
Mandarin 官話Jǐnán 濟南21355212134221
55
2121
42
Mandarin 官話Xúzhōu 徐州31335513135551
35
5155
Mandarin 官話Kāifēng 開封245531244131
55
3141
24
Mandarin 官話Xī'ān 西安215355213555
53
5535
Mandarin 官話Lánzhōu 蘭州213324245324
33
2453
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Xīníng 西寧44532134424213
53
21324
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Chéngdū 成都55532135521213
53
21321
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Guìyáng 貴陽554213553113
42
1355
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Guìlín 桂林44542134421213
54
21344
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Kùnmíng 昆明44532123131212
53
21231
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Chóngqìng 重慶554224111124
42
2411
Mandarin 官話
SW 西南
Wŭhàn 武漢55423521321335
42
35213
Mandarin 官話
Jianghuai 江淮
Nánjing 南京31224452444
22
4424
Mandarin 官話
Jianghuai 江淮
Yángzhōu 揚州31425543455
42
554
Mandarin 官話
Jianghuai 江淮
Héféi 合肥212344245542
34
4255
Jìn 晉Tàiyuán 太原11534521145
53
4554
Jìn 晉Hohhot 呼和浩特315355433155
53
5543
Xiāng 湘Chángshā 長沙334145241321
41
2124
Xiāng 湘Shuāngfēng 雙峰55213552333
21
3355
Xiāng 湘Shàoyáng 邵陽55423551242245
Gàn 贑Nánchāng 南昌4221335524
55
21
213
212
Gàn 贑Líchuān 藜川224453133513
44
135
3, 5
Huī 徽Wùyuán 婺源4421355422315454
Wú 吳Shànghǎi 上海533434523232312
Wú 吳Sūzhōu 蘇州4452412424313123
Wú 吳Hángzhōu 杭州335355521353132
Wú 吳Níngbō 寧波513553555255355223, 4423
Wú 吳Wēnzhōu 溫州444542323313422212
Shàojiāng Mǐn 邵將閩Shàowǔ 邵武21552135333213
55
21335
53, 35
N Mǐn 閩北Jiàn'ōu 建歐5421332433, 2144
21
4442
E Mǐn 閩東Fúzhōu 福州55332132453242
33
2425
Púxiān Mǐn 莆仙閩Pútián 莆田53345342211311
453
114
S Mǐn 閩南Xiàmén 廈門55532113511
53
115
S Mǐn 閩南Taiwanese 臺語445321322433
53
334
S Mǐn 閩南Cháozhōu 潮州3353213215535
53
114
S Mǐn 閩南Shàntóu 汕頭35531115513
53
315
S Mǐn 閩南Léizhōu 雷州24312151133
31
551
S Mǐn 閩南Hǎikǒu 海口242133552133
213
335
Hakka 客家Sìxiàn 四縣24315521155
31
555
Hakka 客家Méixiàn 梅縣443152211152, 44
31, 44
525
1, 5
Hakka 客家Hǎilù 海陸53131155533
13
3332
Hakka 客家Hong Kong 西貢344152322152, 34
41, 34
525
32, 5
Yuè 粵
Guangfu 廣府
Guǎngzhōu 廣州55, 5335335, 32113222
Yuè 粵
Seiyap 四邑
Táishān 台山3345315, 322215521
Yuè 粵
Seiyap 四邑
Kāipíng 開平3355315, 322215521
Yuè 粵
Yongxun 邕潯
Nánníng 南寧5535335, 32124222
Píng 平Nánníng 南寧5333555, 321242223, 2
Tǔ 土話Liánzhōu 連州225311245533
24
3322
Mán 蠻話Wēnzhōu 溫州444541421345
222
Burman Languages🌜🌞
LanguageLocation陰平陰上陰去陰入 / long陽平陽上陽去陽入 / long
BurmeseYangon ရန်ကုန်àː22á̤ː55á̰ˀ53ăʔ44àː22á̤ː55á̰ˀ53ăʔ44
Achangacn ŋa˨˩tʂhaŋ˨˩Myanmar, China4431355544313555
Nusunuf nu˧su˧China 泸水县, 福贡县, 3355315333553153
Zaiwaatb tsau˧˩va˥˩China - Burma border5121555551215521
Hanihni Haqniqdoq /xa˧˩ɲi˧˩/China - Burma - Laos - Vietnam border55313332 / 4455313332 / 44

Further Reading

Register now on Glossika to start your listening and speaking fluency training in any of the following languages. Glossika provides at least 1000 reps for free in any language of your choice, and dialects like Hakka, Taiwanese, Wenzhounese have unlimited reps for free.

Cracking Thai Fundamentals: A Thai Operating System for Your Mind, Stuart Jay Raj

Change in the Standard Thai High Tone: An Acoustic Study
http://www.manusya.journals.chula.ac.th/files/essay/Phanintra_p.34-44.pdf

Illustration of the IPA: Vietnamese (Hanoi), James P. Kirby
http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~jkirby/docs/kirby2011vietnamese.pdf

The Complex Tones of East/Southeast Asian Languages: Current Challenges for Typology and Modelling, Alexis Michaud
https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00676251/document

Tone and Phonation in Southeast Asian Languages
http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~jkirby/docs/brunelle2016tone-preprint.pdf

Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell

Polyglot, phonologist, linguist specialising in Formosan, Proto-Austronesian, Sinitic, Slavic, typology, IPA, and L2. Does Glossika training daily.

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Tones in Asian Languages 🌏
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