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Guest co-author: Dr. Yuwen Lai

There are four completely different words ‘mao’ in Mandarin Chinese, corresponding to these four English words:

    1. ‘cat’
    2. ‘Mao’, as in Chairman Mao (this is a common surname, and originally meant ‘animal fur’)
    3. ‘rivet’
    4. ‘hat’

Each of these four ‘mao’s has the exact same consonant and vowel: what distinguishes them is only the pitch of the speaker’s voice. When people use pitch to distinguish words, linguists call this ‘tone’, so Mandarin is a ‘tone language’.

Tone is very difficult for English speaker’s to hear, because—though we do use pitch when we sing, and to mark questions— we never use pitch to distinguish one word from another.

The Four Mandarin ‘Mao’s

Summary of four tone patterns for Mandarin 'mao'

The four pitch-patterns (‘tones’) that correspond to ‘cat’, ‘Mao’, ‘rivet’, and ‘hat’

  • Picture of cat, illustrating high level tone

    ‘mao’ 1 (‘cat’), high level

    ‘This word is pronounced ___ .’


  • illustration of tone 2, mid-rise

    ‘mao’ 2 (surname, as in ‘Chairman Mao’), mid-rise

    ‘This word is pronounced ___ .’


  • illustration of tone 3, low dip rise

    ‘mao’ 3 (‘rivit’), low then dip then rise (creaky in Beijing dialect)

    ‘This word is pronounced ___ .’


  • illustration of tone 4, high fall

    ‘mao’ 4 (‘hat’), fall from high to low

    ‘This word is pronounced ___ .’


Can YOU hear tone? Test yourself >>>HERE<<<

Note: the recordings here are from the Beijing dialect, which has a special ‘creaky’ quality in tone 3 (for ‘rivet’). Most other varieties of Mandarin have a similar pitch pattern (low dip, then rise), but skip the creakiness on that tone.

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