What is tone sandhi?

You may or may not have heard the term “tone sandhi” before. It involves how tones change in tonal languages. In this brief article, I hope to explain to you what tone sandhi is.

So, what’s tone sandhi?

Simply put, tone sandhi is when a tone is changed because of another word, character, or syllable. It makes much more sense when using real life examples, but first let’s look at a tonal language.

Tones in Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese has four or five tones depending on who you ask. There are four “normal” tones and one “neutral” tone. Because people refer to the neutral tone, a section of sound that doesn’t actually have a tone, some people say that Mandarin Chinese has five tones.

But I digress.

The tones in Chinese are

  • First tone: high tone
  • Second tone: rising tone
  • Third tone: goes down and then up
  • Fourth tone: downward tone
  • Neutral tone: no tone

The word me in Chinese, 我, is third tone and often written like this in pinyin: wǒ.

The word for you, 你, is also third tone and written like so in pinyin:  nǐ.

Finally the word good, 好, is again third tone and written as: hǎo.

All three of these characters are third tone.

If we put you (你) and good (好) together we get the word hello.

But Chinese has a tone changing rule: if there are two third tones side by side, the first third tone becomes a second tone. That means 你 is nǐ and 好 is hǎo, but 你好 is ní hǎo.

This is just one tone changing rule in Chinese – there are many others just like it. Some learners may find it difficult at first, but if you think about it, it is very similar to a and an usage in English.

What to sound more like a native English speaker?

What to read next:

If you thought this article was interesting you may also like to read about distinctive features.

Leave a Comment