The Four Tones

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In beginning Mandarin courses, teachers often use the four syllables 媽 ("mom"), 麻 ("hemp"), 馬 ("horse"), 罵 ("curse") to introduce the four tones.  Since the four syllables in sequence do not make any sense, a very clever wit has proposed that we now replace 媽 麻馬 罵 with 通 同 統 痛.  Here is his reasoning.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was just signed by Taiwan and China yesterday, has as its full Chinese name Liǎng'àn​ Jīngjì​ Hézuò​ Jiàgòu Xié​yì​ (simplified characters: 两岸经济合作架构协议; traditional characters: 兩岸經濟合作架構協議) and as its abbreviated Chinese name Liǎng'àn​ Jīngjì​ Xié​yì​ (simplified characters: 两岸经济协议; traditional characters: 兩岸經濟協議).  Proponents of the ECFA argue that it will bring tōng 通 ("communication, understanding, connection") between China and Taiwan.  Opponents of the ECFA fear that it will lead to tóng 同 ("identity"), from which will come tǒng 統 ("unification") and ultimately tòng 痛 ("pain, suffering, sorrow, sadness").

Whether or not one agrees that this is what will really happen, 通 同 統 痛 is a better mnemonic for the four tones than 媽 麻 馬 罵.


  1. Carl said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    Or you could use the story of the four stone lions.

  2. Tom said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    "Or you could use the story of the four stone lions."

    Wrong order and not the same initials and finals.

  3. Elizabeth Braun said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    Yup, that is clever, but then I never felt a mnemonic was needed for tones. When I used to teach beginners, I used to use 'Tone Aerobics' where the student would use his/her whole body to illustrate the tone. It could get quite physical and was a lot of fun.=)

  4. Mark S. said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:21 am

    Opponents of the Tōngyòng Pīnyīn romanization system (official in Taiwan during much of the previous administration) have long been calling it Tòngyòng.

  5. Ed Cormany said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    google translate handles "通 同 統 痛" amusingly, as usual. with the spaces, as printed above, it just returns "tong tong tong tong"…not helpful. remove the spaces and you get "Michinobu pain system", which is equally confounding since i can't even figure out what Michinobu is supposed to be.

  6. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    I never thought of the four words as a mnemonic for remembering the tones, but rather as an example of how the tone carries meaning. Thus I never felt it necessary to learn the four characters. I could never remember 麻 or 罵. Do students really need a sentence to illustrate the tones?

  7. Greg said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    @Ed Cormany: In Japanese, the characters 通同 could be a man's name. One reading is "Michinobu", but it could also be "Michitomo", "Mitsunobu" or "Mitsutomo" (and maybe lots of others).

  8. mondain said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    A Chinese medical aphorism goes "通则不痛, 痛则不通." In this case it will sound something like "通则同, 統则痛" or its permutations depending on the ping-ze/meter or the perspective on ECFA.

  9. Jason Cullen said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    I don't see the need to have the tones in any particular order, nor did I ever use 妈麻马骂 in learning Mandarin myself. Although I am an instructor in ESL at a university, I've also tutored Mandarin, and I have found calling attention to English intonation helps students become more familiar (and less exaggerated) with tones. I also like the idea of total-physical response posted earlier.

  10. Peter N-H said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    While the 'tong' example is entertaining, I think Prof. Mair misses the point in his discussion of the 'ma' example. This isn't, after all, intended to be memorised, nor to be a 'mnemonic', but only to demonstrate to newcomers how the tones sound and their importance in conveying meaning. (And perhaps the more open 'a' sound actually is a better vehicle for this than the 'ong' one.)

  11. kip said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    @Jason: What are some of the examples of English intonation that you use? (Just curious…)

  12. KevinM said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    For some reason, your question invokes a comedy sketch (Carol Burnett?) in which a baffled singer was sight-reading "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from sheet music. I say tomato, and you say tomato?

  13. Elena said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    I think the point is not whether or not we need a mnemonic to learn our tones, but rather how..what would the word be…prone to fantastic puns (is there a word for that? surely someone on language log will know the answer to that) the Chinese language is.

    And the Chinese love irony, don't they? Can you imagine sitting in a classroom in Taiwan–where so many people go to study Chinese language–reciting 通 同 統 痛 over and over again as you practice molding your mouth around the tones?

  14. bulbul said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    When I got Rint Sybesma's wonderful "Het Chinees en het Nederlands zijn eigenlijk hetzelfde" ("Chinese and Dutch are actually the same"), one of the first great things about it was that he used pao instead of the tired old ma to introduce the tones:
    抛 pāo​ = to throw
    袍 páo​ = gown
    跑 pǎo​ = to run
    泡 pào​ = blister

  15. bulbul said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    Do students really need a sentence to illustrate the tones?
    Not sure about 'need', but there is a world of difference between tones in single separate syllables and tones in a sentence. The former you will find in most languages (think of all the different ways of saying "Yes"), but to have them show up together in a meaningful utterance, that's a different ball game. At least to me. I can tell tones in the former scenario like that. The latter scenario, not so much.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    @Elena: Some of my friends say that the Chinese languages are by nature "puntastic"; your second paragraph is simply wonderful.

    @mondain: very nice medical aphorism! A lot of Language Log readers who do not know Chinese would appreciate your rendering it into English and explaining the lovely variation that you cite.

    @Jason: "I don't see the need to have the tones in any particular order, nor did I ever use 妈麻马骂 in learning Mandarin myself." You raise an interesting question. It is equally interesting to observe the near-universality of teaching the tones in the usual order (1,2, 3, 4) and the ubiquity of meaningless MA1 MA2 MA3 MA4 in Mandarin classrooms.

    @bulbul: Very well stated!

  17. Will Steed said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    I've always used the tired old 妈麻马骂 because it illustrates well to naive populace the difference that can result in using the wrong one. Chinese scholars are a bit bored of hearing that you can accidentally call your mother a horse, but popular-linguistics fans love it.

    The only problem is that it tends to perpetuate de Francis' hated myth that getting any one tone wrong in any sentence will change it from asking for a spoon to a request for the waiter to eat the neighbours' laundry basket.

  18. mondain said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    @Victor Mair: A search on Google Books gives one possible rendering of "痛则不通, 通则不痛" : If there is pain, there is no free flow; if there is free flow, there is no pain.
    My variation "通则同, 統则痛" is a slippery slope argument that 'communication leads to identification, and unification leads to pain'. To play with the tonal meter, "同则痛, 統则通" 'Identity is pain, unification is followed by communication' might be a better arrangement.

  19. Elena said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    @Victor Mair: (completely tangential to the tonal discussion) puntastic reminds me of all the great blends my college friends and I derived from fantastic: dramatastic for the continuously entrenched in relational strife, ghettotastic for the overly gangsta, frattastic for the exclusively greek, and so on.

  20. Rodger C said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    To advert to a topic discussed elsewhere: Wouldn't "Michinobu Pain System" be a great name for a band?

  21. Lareina said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    I foung this interesting article on a website the other day. It was said to be written in the 1930s.
    The interesting part is that it can only be written not read out loud,unless one could really get the accurate tone.


    when I read it, I end up with the 3rd sentence, then basically blur "SHI'….XD
    Tone is what makes Chinese a more interesting language…XDXD

  22. Rodger C said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    @Lareina: That text is from (or was used in) the article "Chinese Language" by Yuen Ren Chao in the old Encyclopaedia Britannica. It's in my 1960 edition. Later he substituted one with "qi" all the way through.

  23. lhc said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    try saying the words damn, no, please and fuck with the four mandarin tones, in order from fourth to first; an american english speaker will recognize the distinct correct pragmatic contexts for almost every tone/word combo. that's how I explain tone to non-speakers.

  24. Wei-Hwa Huang said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    Amusing, but 媽麻馬罵 is definitely a better mnemonic, as the words describe concrete terms as opposed to abstract concepts. And frankly, you could create a vaguely sensible sentence along the same lines with almost any sound. Just off the top of my head:

    妖謠咬葯 "Story of Evil Spirits Bite Medicine"
    溼石使事 "Wet Rock Creates Incident"
    烏無武物 "Crow Lacks Combat Item"
    溪習洗隙 "River Practices Washing a Gap"

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