Checked tone

A checked tone, commonly known by its Chinese calque entering tone (simplified Chinese: 入声; traditional Chinese: 入聲; pinyin: rùshēng; literally: "the tone of character 入"), is one of four syllable types in the phonology in 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. Note that separating the checked tone allows -p, -t, and -k to be treated as allophones of -m, -n, and -ng, respectively, because they are in a complementary distribution in which stops appear only in the checked tone while nasals appear only in 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, and in Chinese phonetics, they have traditionally been counted separately.

For instance, in Cantonese, there are 6 tones in syllables that do not end in stops but only 3 in syllables that do. Therefore, although Cantonese has only 6 tones in the sense of 6 contrasting variations in pitch, it is often said to have 9 tones.

Final voiceless stops and, therefore, the checked "tones", have disappeared from most Mandarin dialects (spoken in northern and southwestern China), but remain preserved in southeastern branches of Chinese such as 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. The use of language helps in reconstructing the pronunciation of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese since the 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 variants of Chinese, the final stop has become a glottal stop, [ʔ ̚].


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, it is commonly thought that Old Chinese had syllables ending in clusters /ps/, /ts/, and /ks/ (sometimes called the "long entering tone" while syllables ending in /p/, /t/ and /k/ are the "short entering tone"). Clusters later were reduced to /s/, which, in turn, became /h/ and ultimately tone 3 in Middle Chinese (the "departing tone").

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 to 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). The use of four-tone system flourished in the Sui and Tang dynasties (7th–10th centuries). An important rime dictionary, Qieyun, was written in this period.

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), former final stops had been reduced to a glottal stop /ʔ/. The Zhongyuan Yinyun, a rime book of 1324, already shows signs of the disappearance of the glottal stop and the emergence of the modern Mandarin tone system in its place. 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
Hakka Hokkien Nanjing dialect
(a Mandarin with entering tone)
Cantonese Classical Japanese Early Modern
(no entering tone)
侯閤切 [ɣɒp] [hap˥] [hɐʔ˥] [xo˥] [hap˨] gapu, kapu ガフ, カフ hap hợp [xɤ̌] union; close
是執切 [ʑĭĕp] [sip˥] [sip˥], [tsap˥] [ʂʅ˥] [sɐp˨] zipu, sipu ジフ, シフ sip thập shí [ʂɨ̌] ten
符弗切 [bʰĭuət] [fut˥] [hut˥], [put˥] [fu˥] [fɐt˨] butu, putu ブツ, フツ bul phật [fuɔ̌] Buddha
博拔切 [pæt] [pat˩] [pat˩], [peʔ˩] [pa˥] [pɑt˧] pati, patu ハチ, ハツ pal bát [pá] eight
羊益切 [jĭɛk] [ji˥˧], [jit˥] [ek˥], [iaʔ˥] [i˥] [jɪk˨] yaku, eki ヤク, エキ yeok dịch [î] change, exchange
苦格切 [kʰɐk] [hak˩],[kʰak˩] [kʰek], [kʰeʔ˩] [kʰɛ˥] [hɑk˧] kyaku, kaku キャク, カク gaek khách [kʰɤ̂] guest

Entering tone in Chinese


The entering tone is extant in Jianghuai Mandarin and the Minjiang dialect of Sichuanese. In other dialects, the entering tone has been lost, and words that had the tone have been distributed into the four modern tonal categories, depending on the initial consonant of each word.

In the Beijing dialect that underlies Standard Mandarin, syllables beginning with originally unvoiced consonants are redistributed 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 (tone 1) and gé/gě (tone 2/3) respectively, with 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 (Middle Chinese /kak/) are now pronounced gē gé gè, with tones 1, 2 and 4. The four characters 鸽蛤颌合 (Middle Chinese /kop/) are now pronounced gē gé gé gě, with tones 1, 2, 2 and 3.

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 (tone 2) and the second group of two is pronounced (tone 4). In such situations like this, it may be that only one of the characters in each group normally occurs in speech with an identifiable tone, and as a result, a "reading pronunciation" of the other characters was constructed based on the phonetic element of the character.

The chart below summarizes the distribution in the different dialects.

Mandarin dialect Voiceless nasal or /l/ Voiced obstruent
Peninsular 3 4 2
Northeastern 1, 2, 3, 4 (mostly 3, unsystematic) 4 2
Beijing 1, 2, 3, 4 (no obvious pattern) 4 2
Northcentral 1 4 2
Central Plains 1 2
Northwestern 4 2
Southwestern 2 (mainly), 1, 4 or preserved (Minjiang dialect)
Yangtze/Jianghuai entering tone preserved


Like most other variants of Chinese, Cantonese has changed initial voiced stops, affricates and fricatives of Middle Chinese to their voiceless counterparts. To compensate for the loss of that difference, Cantonese has split each of the Middle Chinese tones into two, one for Middle Chinese voiced initial consonants (yang) and one for Middle Chinese voiceless initial consonants (yin). In addition, Cantonese has split the yin-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:

The entering tone in Cantonese has retained its short and sharp character.


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

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,[2] 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:

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

Entering tone in Sino-Xenic

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, 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:

It is possible to recover the original ending by examining the historical kana used in spelling a word.


Korean keeps the -k and -p endings while the -t ending has changed into -l.


Vietnamese preserves all of the 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 like aik) also occurs for some words ending with -k.

Reconstruction of entering tones from Mandarin

Although it is hard to distinguish words of entering tone origin based on only Mandarin pronunciation, it is possible to do so, to an extent, with the help of the phonetic component of each Chinese character. Although it is not completely accurate, it is a quick way to identify characters of the entering tone.

See also


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