Checked tone

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Checked tone
Traditional Chinese入聲
Simplified Chinese入声
Literal meaningthe tone of character
'entering' tone
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese促聲
Simplified Chinese促声
Literal meaningthe tone of character
'urgent' tone

A checked tone, commonly known by the Chinese calque entering tone, is one of the four syllable types in the phonology of Middle Chinese. Although usually translated as "tone", a checked tone is not a tone in the phonetic sense but rather a syllable that ends in a stop consonant or a glottal stop. Separating the checked tone allows -p, -t, and -k to be treated as allophones of -m, -n, and -ng, respectively, since they are in complementary distribution. Stops appear only in the checked tone, and nasals appear only in the other tones. Because of the origin of tone in Chinese, the number of tones found in such syllables is smaller than the number of tones in other syllables. Chinese phonetics have traditionally counted them separately.

For instance, Cantonese has six tones in syllables that do not end in stops but only three in syllables that do. That is why although Cantonese has only six tones, in the sense of six contrasting variations in pitch, it is often said to have nine tones.

Final voiceless stops and therefore the checked "tones" have disappeared from most Mandarin dialects, spoken in northern and southwestern China, but have been preserved in southeastern Chinese branches like Yue, Min, and Hakka.

Tones are an indispensable part of Chinese literature, as characters in poetry and prose were chosen according to tones and rhymes for their euphony. This use of language helps reconstructing Old Chinese and Middle Chinese pronunciations since Chinese writing system is logographic, rather than phonetic.


From a phonetic perspective, the entering tone is simply a syllable ending with a voiceless stop that has no audible release: [p̚], [t̚], or [k̚]. In some Chinese variants, the final stop has become glottal stop [ʔ̚].


The voiceless stops that typify the entering tone date back to the Proto-Sino-Tibetan, the parent language of Chinese as well as the Tibeto-Burman languages. In addition, Old Chinese is commonly thought to have syllables ending in clusters /ps/, /ts/, and /ks/[1][2] (sometimes called the "long entering tone" while syllables ending in /p/, /t/ and /k/ are the "short entering tone"). Such clusters were later reduced to /s/, which, in turn, became /h/ and ultimately "departing tone" in Middle Chinese.

The first Chinese philologists began to describe the phonology of Chinese during the Early Middle Chinese period (specifically, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, between 400 and 600 AD), under the influence of Buddhism and the Sanskrit language that arrived along with it. There were several unsuccessful attempts to classify the tones of Chinese before the establishment of the traditional four-tone description between 483 and 493. It is based on the Vedic theory of three intonations (聲明論). The middle intonation, udātta, maps to the "level tone" (平聲); the upwards intonation, svarita, to the "rising tone" (上聲); the downward intonation, anudātta, to the "departing tone" (去聲). The distinctive sound of syllables ending with a stop did not fit the three intonations and was categorised as the "entering tone" (入聲), thus forming the four-tone system.[3] The use of this system flourished in the Sui and Tang dynasties (7th–10th centuries), during which the Qieyun (Chinese: 切韻) rime dictionary was written.

Note that modern linguistic descriptions of Middle Chinese often refer to the level, rising and departing tones as tones 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

By the time of the Mongol invasion (the Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368), the former final stops had been reduced to a glottal stop /ʔ/ in Old Mandarin. The Zhongyuan Yinyun (中原音韻), a rime book of 1324, already shows signs of glottal stop disappearing and the modern Mandarin tone system emerging in its place.[4] The precise time at which the loss occurred is unknown though it was likely gone by the time of the Qing Dynasty, in the 17th century.


Fanqie spelling and Middle Chinese reconstruction[5] Modern varieties of Chinese having entering tone Sino-Xenic pronunciations Standard Mandarin
(no entering tone)
Hakka Hokkien Jianghuai Mandarin

(Nanjing dialect)


(Ningbo dialect)

Cantonese Classical Japanese Korean
侯閤切 [ɣɒp] [hap˥] [hɐʔ˥] ho⁵ [xoʔ˥] [6] [ɦɐʔ˩˨] [hɐp˨] ガフ gapu, カフ kapu hap hợp / hạp [xɤ̌] 'union', 'close'
是執切 [ʑĭĕp] [sip˥] [sip˥], [tsap˥] shr⁵ [ʂʅʔ˥] [6] [zʷœʔ˩˨] [sɐp˨] ジフ zipu, シフ sipu sip thập shí [ʂɨ̌] 'ten'
符弗切 [bʰĭuət] [fut˥] [hut˥], [put˥] fu⁵ [fuʔ˥] [6] [vɐʔ˩˨] [fɐt˨] ブツ butu, フツ putu bul phật [fuɔ̌] 'Buddha'
博拔切 [pæt] [pat˩] [pat˩], [peʔ˩] ba⁵ [paʔ˥] [6] [pɐʔ˥] [paːt˧] ハチ pati, ハツ patu pal bát [pá] 'eight'
羊益切 [jĭɛk] [ji˥˧], [jit˥] [ek˥], [iaʔ˥] i⁵ [iʔ˥] [6] [ji˦], [jeʔ˩˨] [jɪk˨] ヤク yaku, エキ eki yeok, i dịch [î] 'change', 'exchange'
苦格切 [kʰɐk] [hak˩],[kʰak˩] [kʰek], [kʰeʔ˩] kä⁵ [kʰɛʔ˥] [6] [kʰɐʔ˥] [haːk˧] キャク kyaku, カク kaku gaek khách [kʰɤ̂] guest





— Yue Fei, 滿江紅 (Full River of Red)]]

Entering tone in Chinese[edit]


The entering tone is extant in Jianghuai Mandarin and Minjiang Sichuanese. Other dialects have lost the entering tone, and syllables that had the tone have been distributed into the four modern tonal categories, depending on their initial consonants.

The Beijing dialect that forms the basis of Standard Mandarin redistributed syllables beginning with originally unvoiced consonants across the four tones in a completely random pattern. For example, the three characters 积脊迹, all pronounced /tsjek/ in Middle Chinese (William Baxter's reconstruction), are now pronounced jī jǐ jì, with tones 1, 3 and 4 respectively. The two characters 割/葛, both pronounced /kat/, are now pronounced and gé/gě respectively, with the character splitting on semantic grounds (tone 3 when it is used as a component of a name, mostly tone 2 otherwise).

Similarly, the three characters 胳阁各 (MC /kak/) are now pronounced gē gé gè. The four characters 鸽蛤颌合 (MC /kop/) are now pronounced gē gé gé gě.

In those cases, the two sets of characters are significant in that each member of the same set has the same phonetic component, suggesting that the phonetic component of a character has little to do with the tone class that the character is assigned to.

In other situations, however, the opposite appears to be the case. For example, the group 幅福蝠辐/腹复 of six homophones, all /pjuwk/ in Middle Chinese and divided into a group of four with one phonetic and a group of two with a different phonetic, splits so that the first group of four is all pronounced and the second group of two is pronounced . Situations like this may result from the fact that only one of the characters in each group normally occurs in speech with an identifiable tone, and as a result, a "literary pronunciation" of the other characters was constructed based on the phonetic element of that character.

The chart below summarizes the distribution in the different dialects.

Mandarin dialect Voiceless nasal or /l/ Voiced obstruent
Peninsular / Jiao-Liao 3 4 2
Northeastern 1, 2, 3, 4 (mostly 3, irregular) 4 2
Beijing 1, 2, 3, 4 (no obvious pattern) 4 2
North-Central / Ji-Lu 1 4 2
Central Plains 1 2
Northwestern / Lan-Yin 4 2
Southwestern 2 (mainly), 1, 4 or preserved (Minjiang dialect)
Yangtze/Jianghuai entering tone preserved

Identifying checked tones in Modern Standard Mandarin[edit]

There are several conditions that can be used to determine if a character historically had a checked tone in Middle Chinese based on its current reading in Modern Standard Mandarin. However, there are many characters, such as , , , and which do not satisfy any of these conditions at all.

Initial Final Tone Exceptions
Tenuis obstruent: ㄅ、ㄉ、ㄍ、ㄐ、ㄓ、ㄗ (b, d, g, j, zh, z) Non-nasal final Second tone 鼻, 值
Alveolar consonant: ㄉ、ㄊ、ㄋ、ㄌ、ㄗ、ㄘ、ㄙ (d, t, n, l, z, c, s)

or ㄖ (r)

ㄜ (e) (any) 呢、眲、若~)
Velar consonant: ㄍ、ㄎ、ㄏ (g、k、h)
Retroflex consonant:ㄓ、ㄔ、ㄕ、ㄖ (zh, ch, sh, r)
ㄨㄛ (uo) (any) 咼(渦、堝、過、鍋、禍)
Bilabial consonant: ㄅ、ㄆ、ㄇ (b, p, m)
Alveolar non-sibilant consonant: ㄉ、ㄊ、ㄋ、ㄌ (d, t, n, l)
ㄧㄝ (ie) (any) 爹、咩
Non-labial tenuis obstruent: ㄉ、ㄍ、ㄗ (d, g,z)
Non-labial fricative: ㄏ、ㄙ (h, s)
ㄟ (ei) (any) 這、誰
ㄈ (f) ㄚ、ㄛ (a,o) (any)
Alveolar sibilant:ㄗ、ㄘ、ㄙ (z, c, s) ㄚ (a) (any) 仨、灑
(any) ㄩㄝ (üe) (any) 's variant reading of juē, 靴, 瘸
  • A character with a nasal final /-n/, /-ŋ/ in Modern Standard Mandarin will not have the checked tone in Middle Chinese. (The only exception is 廿; niàn.)
  • A character with the sibilant final /-ɿ/ in Standard Chinese, i.e. those with initials z-, c-, s- and final -i, will not have the checked tone in Middle Chinese.
  • A character with the final -uai or -uei in Modern Standard Mandarin will typically not have the checked tone in Middle Chinese. (Exceptions: ; shuài, and others)
  • A character with a tenuis obstruent initial (pinyin: b, d, g, j, z, zh, z)in Standard Mandarin and the third tone will typically not have the checked tone in Middle Chinese. (Exceptions: ; bǎi, ; when used as a surname, ; , ; jiǎo, ; zhǎi, among others)
  • Characters that begin with an unaspirated obstruent and end in a nasal final (n or ng) in Mandarin almost never have light level tone (or second tone in Modern Standard Mandarin, marked in pinyin with an acute accent). This is a corollary of the first condition in the table above, where characters that begin with an unaspirated obstruent (pinyin b, d, g, j, z, zh), end in a vowel, and have a light level tone (阳平) in Mandarin (corresponding to a rising tone in Standard Mandarin) almost always derive from an entering tone (e.g. ; , ; , 絕绝; jué,雜/杂; and ; zhái all come from entering tones). As such, *gáng and *zún are not recognised syllables in Standard Chinese.
  • If a character has a phonetic component that is known to have an entering tone, other characters that have that phonetic component probably have an entering tone. For example, if one already knows that ; 'white' has entering tone, one can conjecture (correctly) that ; 'to beat', ; 'fir', ; 'white cloth', ; 'urgent' also have entering tone. However, there are plenty of exceptions, such as ; 'afraid' and ; 'to cling to'', 'to gather up', which lack the entering tone.[note 1]


Most varieties of Wu Chinese preserve the entering tone. However, no contemporary Wu varieties preserve the /p/, /t/ or /k/ distinction, but instead merges them all into a glottal stop /ʔ/. For example, in Shanghainese, the three lexemes 濕/湿; 'wet', ; 'lose', ; 'block', historically ending in /p/, /t/ and /k/, all end in a glottal stop, and are pronounced seq /səʔ⁵⁵/.

In some modern Wu varieties such as Wenzhounese, even the glottal stop has disappeared, and the entering tone is preserved as separate tone, with a falling-rising contour, making it unequivocally a phonemic tone in modern linguistics.[7]

The pitch of the entering tones are divided into two registers, depending on the initials:

  • "dark entering" (陰入), a high-pitched checked tone, with a voiceless initial.
  • "light entering" (陽入), a low-pitched checked tone, with a voiced initial.

Many terms with grammatical functions also undergo sporadic evolution and gain a checked tone. This process can be considered a form of lenition, and is sometimes considered a form of glottalization.[8][9]

Term Gloss Wu Non-Wu
Shanghai Suzhou Ningbo Jinhua Chongming Changzhou Wuxi Jiaxing Tiantai Hangzhou Beijing Guangzhou Nanchang Xining
diminuitive aq⁷
/꜀ŋa/ /꜀a/
possessive gheq⁸

/ko꜄/ /kɔ꜄/

Romanization used is Wugniu. This phenomenon can also be seen in many pronouns, such as Shanghainese aq-la (阿拉, "we") and Yuyaonese ⁸geq-laq (搿辣, "they").


In general, Cantonese preserves the Middle Chinese finals intact, including the differentiation between -p, -t and -k final consonants. Standard Cantonese does not use any glottal stops as final consonants.

There are a few isolated cases where the final consonant has changed as a result of final dissimilation, but they remain in the checked tone.[10]

Chinese character Middle Chinese
Standard Cantonese
Sino-Korean Sino-Vietnamese
pjop faat3 fap (beop)
bjop fat6 fa̍t (pip) phạp

Like most other Chinese variants, Cantonese has changed initial voiced stops, affricates and fricatives of Middle Chinese to their voiceless counterparts. To compensate for losing that difference, Cantonese has split each Middle Chinese tones into two, one for Middle Chinese voiced initial consonants (light) and one for Middle Chinese voiceless initial consonants (dark). In addition, Cantonese has split the dark-entering tone into two, with a higher tone for short vowels and a lower tone for long vowels. As a result, Cantonese now has three entering tones:[11]

  • Upper dark entering / short dark entering (上陰入/短陰入)
  • Lower dark entering / long middle entering (下陰入/長中入)
  • Light entering (陽入)

Some variants of Yue Chinese, notably including that of Bobai County (Chinese: 博白; pinyin: Bóbái) in Guangxi and Yangjiang (simplified Chinese: 阳江; traditional Chinese: 陽江; pinyin: Yángjiāng; Cantonese Yale: Yèuhnggōng) in Guangdong,[12] have four entering tones: the lower light tone is also differentiated according to vowel length, short vowels for upper light and long vowels for lower light. Thus in such varieties:

  • Upper dark entering / short dark entering (上陰入/短陰入)
  • Lower dark entering / long middle entering (下陰入/長中入)
  • Upper light entering / short light entering (上陽入/中入/短陽入)
  • Lower light entering / long light entering (下陽入/長陽入)
Chinese character Middle Chinese
Standard Cantonese
Vowel length
in standard Cantonese
Bobai dialect
pok bak1 short /paʔ55/ bắc
paek baak3 long /pak33/ bách
bak bok6 short /pɔk22/ bạc
baek baak6 long /pak22/ bạch
tsyowk zuk1 short
(the final -uk /ʊk̚/ does not
distinguish long from short)
/tʃuk55/ trúc
tsraewk zuk3, zuk1 /tʃɔk33/ tróc
dzyowk, draewk zuk6 /tʃɔk22/ trạc
draewk zuk6 /tʃɔk11/ trọc


Hakka preserves all Middle Chinese entering tones and is split into two registers. Meixian Hakka dialect often taken as the paradigm gives the following:

  • "dark entering" (陰入) [ ˩ ], a low-pitched checked tone
  • "light entering" (陽入) [ ˥ ], a high-pitched checked tone

Middle Chinese entering tone syllables ending in [k] whose vowel clusters have become front high vowels like [i] and [ɛ] shifts to syllables with [t] finals in some of the modern Hakka,[14] as seen in the following table.

Character Guangyun fanqie Middle Chinese
Hakka Chinese Gloss
之翼切 tɕĭək tsit˩ vocation, profession
林直切 lĭək lit˥ strength, power
乗力切 dʑʰĭək sit˥ eat, consume
所力切 ʃĭək sɛt˩ colour, hue
多則切 tək tɛt˩ virtue
苦得切 kʰək kʰɛt˩ carve, engrave, a moment
博墨切 pək pɛt˩ north
古或切 kuək kʷɛt˩ country, state


Southern Min (Minnan, including Taiwanese) has two entering tones:

  • Upper (dark, 陰入), also numbered tone 4
  • Lower (light, 陽入), tone 8

A word may switch from one tone to the other by tone sandhi. Words with entering tones end with a glottal stop ([-ʔ]), [-p], [-t] or [-k] (all unaspirated). There are many words that have different finals in their literary and colloquial forms.

Eastern Min, as exemplified by Fuzhounese, also has two entering tones:

  • Upper/dark entering, 陰入, which in Fuzhounese has the tonal value /˨˦/ and ends in the glottal stop /ʔ/. This tone contour is not shared with any other tone category.
  • Lower/light entering, 陽入, which in Fuzhounese has the tonal value /˥/ and also ends in the glottal stop /ʔ/.

Within its complex tone sandhi laws, Fuzhounese has a split in sandhi behavior between two separate upper/dark entering 陰入 tones. This is believed to be a reflex of an earlier stage in its development, where final /k/ was distinguished from final /ʔ/.[15]

In the related Fuqing dialect, a proportion of entering tone lexemes have lost their glottal stop and have merged into the phonetically equivalent tones:[16]

  • Upper/dark entering, 陰入, with value /˨˩/, is merging into upper/dark departing, 陰去, with value /˨˩/.
  • Lower/light entering, 陽入, with value /˥/, is merging into upper/dark level, 陰平, with value /˥˧/.
Outcomes of Glottal Stop Retention in Fuzhou vs Loss in Fuqing
Historical Entering Tone Dark entering (陰入) Light entering (陽入)
Entering Tone Character
Fuzhou dialect[17]
(colloquial reading)
Historical Other Tone Dark departing (陰去) Dark level (陰平)
Other Tone Character
Fuzhou dialect[17]
(colloquial reading)


Fuqing dialect
(colloquial reading)
kɑ˨˩ θɔ˨˩ kʰuɔ˨˩ θyo˥˧ tia˥˧ ua˥˧ ti˥˧

This merger can also affect sandhi environments, but there is the option to use the sandhi pattern of the former checked tone while still eliminating the final glottal stop.[16]: 40 

Additionally in Fuqingnese, sandhi environments where the light entering 陽入 tone is non-final cause the glottal stop to weaken and in some tones lost, and where the tone changes to a low sandhi tone /˨˩/, the glottal stop is completely lost.[16]: 39-40  The dark entering 陰入 tone on the other hand retains its glottal stop in sandhi environments.[16]: 39 

Entering tone in Sino-Xenic[edit]

Many Chinese words were borrowed into Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese during the Middle Chinese period so they preserve the entering tone to varying degrees.


Because Japanese does not allow a syllable to end with a consonant except ん n, the endings -k, -p, -t were rendered as separate syllables -ku or -ki, -pu, and -ti (-chi) or -tu (-tsu) respectively. Later phonological changes further altered some of the endings:

  • In some cases in which the ending is immediately followed by an unvoiced consonant in a compound, the ending is lost, and the consonant becomes geminate.
    • Examples: , gaku + , kau (> Modern Japanese ) becomes 学校, gakkō, 'school', and , shitsu + , pai (> Modern Japanese hai when standing alone) becomes 失敗 shippai (failure)
  • The -pu ending changes into -u. (pu > fu > hu > u). That process can be followed by -au > - ō and -iu > -yū.
    • Example: , jipu, 'ten' becomes

Recovering the original ending is possible by examining the historical kana used in spelling a word, which has also aided scholars in reconstructing historical Chinese pronunciation.


Korean keeps the -k and -p endings while the -t ending is represented as -l (tapped -r-, [ɾ], if intervocalic) as Sino-Korean derives from a northern variety of Late Middle Chinese where final -t had weakened to [r].[18]


Vietnamese preserves all endings /p/, /t/ and /k/ (spelt -c). Additionally, after the vowels ê or i, the ending -c changes to -ch, giving rise to -ich and -êch, and ach (pronounced /ajk/) also occurs for some words ending with -k.

Only the sắc and nặng tones are allowed on checked tones. In Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, those tones were split from the Middle Chinese "entering" tone in a similar fashion to Cantonese. Whether the syllable tone should be sắc or nặng depends on the original Middle Chinese syllable's initial consonant voicing.

Chinese character Middle Chinese reconstruction[5] Vietnamese
[pɐk] (voiceless initial) bách
[bʰɐk] (voiced initial) bạch
[ɕĭĕt] (voiceless initial) thất
[dʑʰĭĕt] (voiced initial) thật
[ʔĭĕt] (voiceless initial) nhất
[nʑĭĕt] (voiced initial) nhật
[mĭĕt] (voiced initial) mật
[bʰĭuət] (voiced initial) phật
[kĭuət] (voiceless initial) khuất or quật

See also[edit]


  1. ^ These exceptions often originate from obstruent + s final clusters in Old Chinese, whereby the s at the end becomes the departing tone during the transition to Middle Chinese, but also causes the stop before it to disappear.


  1. ^ Sagart, Laurent; Baxter, William H. (2017). "Old Chinese Phonology: a sketch". Brill. p. 274. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  2. ^ Handel, Zev (1 January 2003). "2003: A Concise Introduction to Old Chinese Phonology". Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  3. ^ 童, 庆炳 (July 2015). "社会文化对文学修辞的影响" (PDF). Journal of Central China Normal University (Humanities and Social Sciences). 54 (4). Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  4. ^ Shen, Zhongwei (2020). "Old Mandarin: The Zhōngyuán Yīnyùn 中原音韻". A Phonological History of Chinese. Cambridge University Press: 262–293. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  5. ^ a b c "廣韻入聲卷第五".
  6. ^ a b c d e f "LangJinPinIn" 南京官話拼音方案 ( Romanization of Nanjing Mandarin and its input method ) (in Chinese). 2019-02-16. Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  7. ^ Zhang, Hongming; Jin, Xiaojuan (24 January 2011). "Tonal Representation of Chinese Wenzhou Dialect". Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics. 5 (2): 137–160. doi:10.1163/2405478X-90000086. ISSN 2405-478X. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  8. ^ Qian, Nairong; Xu, Baohua; Tang, Zhenzhu (August 2007). 上海話大詞典. 上海譯書出版社.
  9. ^ Dai, Zhaoming (2004). "弱化、促化、虚化和语法化——吴方言中一种重要的演变现象". 汉语学报 (2): 26–34.
  10. ^ Chen, Matthew Y.; Newman, John (1984). "FROM MIDDLE CHINESE TO MODERN CANTONESE (Part 1) / 从中古汉语到现代粤语(第一部分)". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 12 (1): 148–198. ISSN 0091-3723. Retrieved 9 January 2024.
  11. ^ Bauer, Robert S.; Benedict, Paul K. (20 July 2011). Modern Cantonese Phonology. Walter de Gruyter. p. 122. ISBN 978-3-11-082370-7.
  12. ^ Chen, Matthew Y. (3 August 2000). Tone Sandhi: Patterns across Chinese Dialects. Cambridge University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-139-43149-1. Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  13. ^ "漢字古今音資料庫 (Chinese Character Readings)". (in Chinese). Retrieved 10 January 2024.
  14. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2010-03-10.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ Donohue, Cathryn (2013). Fuzhou tonal acoustics and tonology. Muenchen. ISBN 9783862885220. OCLC 869209191.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ a b c d 冯爱珍 Feng, Aizhen (1993). Fuqing Fangyan Yanjiu 福清方言研究 (in Chinese). Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe 社会科学文献出版社. ISBN 9787800503900.
  17. ^ a b in Foochow Romanized and IPA. Sourced from 榕典 Online.
  18. ^ Lee, Ki-Moon; Ramsey, S. Robert (2011). A History of the Korean Language. SUNY Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-521-66189-8.

External links[edit]