Chinese Tones: Sound and Meaning
There are over 50,000 characters, each with their own tone.
In the pinyin system, we see the tone, but in the character system, we see only the character. How do Chinese people learn and remember these? The syllables look different as characters, but different characters have similar consonant-vowel structures.
Actually, in English we also use intonation to express meaning. If someone says to me "David, PLEASE see your mother" We usually understand that I don't want to see my mother. If that person says "David, please see your MOTHER," we would probably guess that I plan to see someone else. However, if the person says to me, " David, see your mother?" with a rising intonation, they are probably saying "David, you are 71 years old; your mother died years ago." In this example in English, the sentence meaning changes. In Chinese, the meanings for the words change.
You might ask, every sound has intonation and if the intonation changes, the meaning changes? How does anyone communicate? It is true that at first, when I tried my Chinese, no one believed that I was speaking Chinese. Perhaps they thought I was speaking Martian. After a while, you hear the intonation of words, and you "know it," and people understand.
Still, for the non-Chinese, if you encounter a new word, perhaps a place destination, then no one, no cab driver, no one at all will know where you want to go. You have never heard the word before, you are not sure of the intonation even if you see it in pinyin, and no one understands what you are saying. All over China, those who do not speak Chinese as a first language ask a friend or hotel concierge to write the name of their destination in Chinese characters. Another telltale sign is to see people hand their telephones over to cab drivers. The non-Chinese learns tonality by listening to intonation, because without it, no one will ever know what is being said.