Mandarin is known for having “tones”. We might call them intonations. They determine the pitch and “direction” of the voice of a vowel. For example, in English there is a certain intonation—pitch and direction—at the end of a sentence. A similar intonation exists in Mandarin except rather than being at the end of a question, it can be carried by any vowel in any part of a sentence.
There are five tones:
Tone 1 (example: ē) – marked by a macron, it indicates a high, flat tone.
Tone 2 (example: é) – marked by an acute accent; it indicates a rising tone (like what we use in English at the end of a question), it should end where Tone 1 rests.
Tone 3 (example: ě) – marked by a caron or hacek; it indicates a falling and rising tone, and should end where Tone 1 rests
Tone 4 (example: è) – marked by a grave accent; it indicates a sharp, falling tone.
Tone 5 (example: e) – this is unmarked and is often referred to as a neutral tone; it short and clipped.
In order to demonstrate what a difference the tone can make, let us consider the following which are differentiated only by tone:
Mā 妈: mother
Má 麻: hemp
Mǎ 马: horse
Mà 骂: to scold or curse
Ma 吗: interrogative particle