The third tone change in spoken Mandarin Chinese: Learn from 很 phrases used in Peppa Pig!

Here is a simple rule in spoken Mandarin Chinese: The third tone will change to the second tone when followed by another third tone in a word. We will see how this happens through the uses of 很 in Peppa Pig!

The simple rule about third tone change

I’ve heard people complaining that some Chinese characters don’t always sound like the tones marked by pinyin when they’re said in words and phrases. You have my sympathy! There are some high level rules, and I’d like to get into a few over time. These rules can help you improve your Chinese pronunciation and sound more like a native speaker.

Here is the simple rule paraphrased (I believe it was first popularized by Sinosplice among English speakers who are trying to learn Chinese):

When you have two characters with the third tone (dipping then rising) in a row, the first character will slightly change to the second tone within the word. This rule also applies if this tone pair shows up in a longer phrase as long as the characters are closely connected for the purpose of comprehension.

Okay, I just called this rule a simple rule. Nothing seems to be simple. Have you wondered what happens when you have three tone tones in a row? What about four third tones in a row. Scroll down to the last section if you want to find out.

Detect the third tone change using 很-phrases!

很 or very is a fantastic way to demonstrate the third tone change. 很 has the third tone itself and it can be added to pretty much any adjective so it’s easy to find pairs of characters that have the third tone + third tone combination.

Do you want to try detecting this Chinese tone variation yourself? Try watching S01E46 Part 3, there are a few instances of 很 with different tone pairs.

Here, I summarized all the 很-phrases that have appeared in Peppa Pig episodes I’ve written so far. I have boIded the changes that I want you to pay attention to. The 3+3 tone pairs essentially turn into 2+3 pairs.

I also marketed another type of change for completeness: Some of the last characters changed to the light tone, which will be a topic for another day.

Word, Official Tones, Reference, Tone Change (if applicable)

What about more third tones in a row?

For three third tones in a row, I summarized another rule myself: Only the second last one changes. Here are some examples:

很勇敢 with tones 3+3+3 would change to 3+2+3
很友好 with tones 3+3+3 would change to 3+2+3
很可以 with tones 3+3+3 would change to 3+2+3

Since these examples didn’t show up in Peppa Pig, I recorded an audio clip myself!

I can’t think of any examples of four third tones in a row off the top of my head. If you can think of an example of four or more third tones in a row, please let me know. Also, if you can think of exceptions to the rule, I’d also want to know!

Have you noticed this tone variation in Chinese? It’s okay if you haven’t. It’s very subtle. Try detecting the difference and apply the rule when you speak!

Also, if you ask a native speaker about this, they probably wouldn’t know this as a rule off the top of their head, because we’re all used to saying them that way!!

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