Fun With Tones In Chinese

Last Updated on August 9, 2016

Mandarin Chinese allows you to have lots of fun with tones due to how many homophones there are. This posts comes because of an experience I had about 3 years ago in China.

One day, I was giving my students a lecture at the college I was working at, about transportation and traveling in English. I tried to mix in a bit of Chinese during the class to help them understand more. I was talking about cars, planes, and the like, and eventually talked about riding horses. Eventually I asked a rhetorical question, which was “does Shandong have horses”? Shandong by the way, is a province in China. In Chinese I said 山东有马吗. In traditional characters it is 山東有馬嗎.

It was very funny to me, because if I had said it differently, it could have been interpreted as 山東有媽媽. Which means Shandong has mothers, which is kind of obvious. This is all due to Chinese being a tonal language. In the first case, 山東有馬嗎 is transcribed into Pinyin as shān dōng yǒu mǎ ma?. But, in the second case, it is shan1 dong1 you3 ma1 ma. I caught myself saying those things, and was very happy.

Taiwan Or Too Late?

Then, that experience instantly brought to mind another experience that I had several days before. I was in a computer store because one of my power plugs was broken, and I wanted to buy another one. That specific store didn’t have one, but the owner helped point out another place that might have what I was looking for. Eventually, I asked him if it was too late to go, and he said yes. I said 太晚嗎? tài wǎn ma. This is interesting, because probably 99% of the time, when a foreigner says “taiwan”, most likely he or she would mean the island of Taiwan, or the Republic of China. In this case though, I actually meant too late.
To say the island of Taiwan in Chinese you would say: tái wān. Below are the characters for Taiwan in Traditional Characters then Simplified Characters.

To say too late or extremely late, you would say tài wǎn 太晚

My mind was wandering all over the place after I had this experience. So, I thought of ways to come up with sentences, which might be nonsense, but emphasizing tones to an extreme. Here is an example that I came up with.

wén wěn wèn wén
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Next, I wanted to create examples of sentences that contained ma ma ma ma in various tones, for which foreigners would find very strange, but Chinese people would have no problem understanding the meaning.

Funny ma ma ma ma sentences in Chinese

你喜歡馬嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢马吗? 妈妈
huan ma? mā mā
Do you like horses mommy?

你喜歡大麻嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢大麻吗? 妈妈
huan ma? mā mā
Do you like hemp mommy?

你喜歡罵嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢骂吗? 妈妈
huan ma? mā mā
Do you like to swear mommy?

Below are the same ma sentences I came up with, just with no Pinyin.
你喜歡馬嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢马吗? 妈妈

你喜歡麻嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢麻吗? 妈妈

你喜歡罵嗎? 媽媽
你喜欢骂吗? 妈妈

The Famous Shi Poem

This post brings to mind of my favorite poems in Chinese. It is called the Shi poem. The entire poem is composed of “shi” sounds. I doubt there many Chinese people, who don’t already know about the poem, who can understand the spoken form of the poem. But, when read, the meaning becomes clear. Its official name is the “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” poem. You can read it here. This article was inspired by a great friend of mine who has taught me lots of Chinese.

What did you think of this article? Have you had fun with tones in Mandarin? Let’s discuss this below in the comments.

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