Car Tones

I recently stumbled across this graphic, and found it amusing enough to share.

Car Tones

So, does using an automotive visual help anyone learn tones any better?? It takes all kinds…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. When I was first learning Chinese, I always visualized it as a roller coaster. But maybe that’s just me….

  2. Not a bad analogy except for the fourth tone. The picture suggests a falling tone (like those cantonese waaahs), whereas it’s more of a sharp (emergency stop) tone – perhaps a picture of a car approaching a cliff would be better.

  3. When I was first learning how to drive on hills, I used to think back to my Chinese tones.

  4. chinochano Says: March 3, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Finally, a post in Spanish! (“cartones” means “cardboards” in Spanish).

    I can’t see the picture, I hope it’s not another Flickr censorship…

  5. I think there is a common misconception about the third tone that it goes down and then comes all the way back up. Rather, it dips down, then curves back up, but not all the way back to where it started from…at least that’s how I’ve always heard it. Any zhong guo ren care to comment?

  6. Actually, it goes up more than it goes down is how I’ve always heard it/said it. Granted I am not zhong guo ran (ran is the singular of ren). has a little chart.

  7. Wow that link got eaten up by the sinosplice robot – there should be underscores between Pinyin, Tone, and Chart.

  8. Michael,

    Personally, I think the drawing is pretty useless, but I found it amusing. But hey, if it helps other people….

  9. chinochano,

    It does indeed look like Flickr is having more China woes. I can’t see the picture either. (Jeffrey D wrote about this too.)

  10. Ben Ross,

    It’s not that there’s a common misconception about the third tone, it’s that the third tone actually takes multiple forms. This phenomenon is pretty well researched and documented.

    I mention the “half third tone” in my Mandarin Tone Changes entry, which links to the rule.

  11. John-

    I wasn’t actually referring to instances where there are two third tones, and the first is pronounced like the second (i.e. hen3 hao3), but rather just referring to a stand alone third tone, which doesn’t come all the way back up, but rather dips down and curves back up, but not all the way. The reason I mention this is because when I first started learning Chinese, I would pronounce my third tone like the diagram above shows, going all the way down, then coming all the way back up. What I found is that Chinese people often mistook my third tones for second tones. When one of my students explained to me that I needed to dip down, and not come all the way back up, I suddenly found that Chinese people had a much easier time deciphering my tones. The more I listened, the more it sounded to me as well that Chinese people were pronouncing their third tones in this fashion as well….then again, I did learn Chinese in Fujian, a province which is not exactly known for its crystal-clear pu tong hua pronunciation. But I do think this is consistent with the way pu tong hua is spoken in most parts of China.

  12. Ben,

    Yes, that’s the “half third tone.” It’s mentioned in the entry I linked to.

  13. Great idea! It helps me.

  14. Maybe it’s a way to justify all the tone mistakes we poor laowai make: car accidents.

  15. changye Says: March 4, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Hi Ben Ross,

    My understanding about the stand-alone third tone is different from yours. Its pitch curve should be something like “2-1-3”, rising at the end, in five levels. The first tone is “5-5”, the second “2-5” or “3-5”, and the fourth “5-1” or “5-2”.

    In ancient Chinese, probably before about the 10th century, there was no tone that is equivalent to modern second tone (阳平), therefore at that time the third tone (上声) was the only tone that had a rising pitch (上声调) at the end.

    I guess that is why the third tone is also called “上声” in Chinese phonology. In this case, “上声” should be pronounced “shang3 sheng1”, not “shang4 sheng1”, although “上” (多音字) is customarily read with the fourth tone.

    Of course, no one knows for sure that the pitch curve of modern 上声 is completely the same as that of the ancient one. Incidentally, the four characters 阴阳上去 have the same tones as those they represent respectively.

    The first tone…… 阴平 (yin1 ping2)

    The second tone… 阳平 (yang2 ping2)

    The third tone….. 上声 (shang3 sheng1)

    The fourth tone…..去声 (qu4 sheng1)

  16. changye Says: March 4, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Just for the record. Why does “平” have the second tone? Actually it had the first tone, i.e. flat tone (平声), more than one thousand year ago, but later the tone changed into the second tone (阳平) because the character had a voiced consonant “b”. The consonant also changed into an unvoiced one “p” when the tone changed.

  17. It’s a good thing I no longer drive or I’d start thinking about Chinese tones every time I’d drive on a hill.

    Now that I think about it, a better analogy to go along with this would be the different ways in which we yell, “*#%@ you!” when driving. But maybe that’s just for the Jersey drivers.

  18. On the subject of 3rd tones…
    When I first started learning it helped me to think of 3rd tone words as almost having two sllyables.
    I know, I know, this isn’t true, but it helped me when I wanted to enunciate clealy.
    (It’s more apparent when someone is epmhasizing something. Ex. “Shei? Wo-ah?” <-points at nose)

  19. My dictionary lists both “shang4sheng1” and “shang3sheng1” as alternate ways to pronounce “上声”. In any case, I never knew before that “上” could be pronounced with the third tone, so thanks changye for this interesting titbit.

  20. Henning Says: March 6, 2008 at 8:17 am

    it is always a pleasure to read your contributions which provide historical and ethymological depth to Chinese related topics.

    You should start your own blog. I would become a devoted reader.

  21. Hey I recognize that… Is it from one of the Yuwen books for little kids?

  22. Great find, John!

  23. On second thought, it could be a fitting example of the phenom, “Superflat” (Japan).

  24. Has anybody else noticed half-third tones used in isolation? I remember talking with my students several years ago, and one of them said some word, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what they were saying, so I asked which tone that word was. This was in Taiwan, and seems fairly common there (although I hadn’t noticed it before that.)

  25. ah the tones. These pictures don’t help me at all, the tone marks are obvious enough for me. My problem is though that i have very bad tonal hearing, if this is even a correct english expression. I mean that i have a hard time hearing the difference in tone between different sounds. I usually try to remember the combinations of tones and then figure out wich one has the most emphasis, or at least their sound relative to each other in stead of their absolute sound. I don’t know if you understand what I mean, but in my ‘hearing’, there are only harder and softer tones and i try to imitate this. Off course I will have to find a better way and learn the tones correctly but it’s going to take a lot of time to first improve my hearing and after my speech.

    An easy example: when chinese say ‘da de’, big one, the ‘de’ is so soft you can barely hear it. When they say ‘xiao de’., small one, i can hardly hear the ‘xiao’, but a very long ‘deeee’.

    I never found something or someone to really help me getting the tonal thing. It’s like me trying to teach a chinese to pronounce a rolling r. No verbal explanations, pictures, tonal graphs, … ever did the trick for me.

  26. Actually, I think of the third tone as a sound I make when asking a one word question to unnerving statment. Someone unknown comes up and says out of the blue. “I need your name and adress.” I say, rather cautiously,
    “Why3? ”
    “I can fix your knee without surgury for $5” “How3?”
    “Are you finished going to get out of the bathroom soon?” “Yes3, why3”
    The car thing works not for me either.

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