After writing last week’s post about tones, I started wondering: what’s the most common tone combination in Mandarin Chinese? Nerdy, yes. Useful, maybe. I decided to do a little database work to try and answer the question.
Before answering my question, I needed to define some terms. What makes a tone combination more common than another one? Is word count? (i.e. How many words it appears in. How many 4th-tone/4th-tone words are there? How many are 1st-tone/4th-tone words are there, etc.) Or is it how frequent those words occur? I decided to use a combination of word count and the average frequency for the first 1000 most common words with a particular tone combination. I used frequency data from Google Android pinyin IME and a CC-CEDICT wordlist.
First, we have to ignore words with the 5th tone. Many 5th tone words have extremely high frequencies, but there aren’t enough of them to really qualify for “Most Common Tone Combination”. Once we get those pesky 5th tones out of the way, it’s clear which tone the winner is.
|tone combination||word count||freq (sum)||avg/freq||avg/freq top 1000 words|
4-4 The Angriest Tone
The 4th-tone/4th-tone combination not only has more words (at least 2700), but it also has the highest average frequency (besides the x-5 5th-tone combinations). And it sounds like you’re angry when you say it. With words like 现在 (xian4zai4: now), 再见 (zai4jian4: good-bye), 但是 (dan4shi4: but), it’s clear why the combination is used so frequently.
Why this matters?
Tone combinations are pretty important in Chinese. If you can’t use them, you’re Chinese will sound strange. And If you are having trouble with a tone combination, it’s important to practice that combination. You can use some form of audio flashcards to test your listening skills, and practice tools like Sinosplice’s Tone Pair Drills, or even give Lingomi’s listening tools a try.
Finally, knowing this kind of data helps you guess words you don’t know: when in doubt, throw out a 4th-tone. Check out the related links for more resources on tones.