Does Chinese have stress, as many people suggested there’s stress on Chinese trisyllabic words?

  • 1
    are you interested in any Chinese variety (typically called "dialects", but many are by all linguistic criteria distinct languages) in particular?
    – Tristan
    Apr 24, 2022 at 13:52
  • Chinese dialects for the most part share a single written language, but each dialect has entirely different pronunciation & phonetic & prosaic characteristics. Please edit your question to refer to which dialects in which you are referring—e.g., Mandarin, Cantonese, Taishanese, etc. Apr 25, 2022 at 18:48
  • @AndreasZUERCHER It's less that the Chinese dialects/languages share a written language as that speakers of other dialects have learnt to write written Mandarin. There are small movements to write Cantonese, Hokkien, etc, but they're not supported very much.
    – curiousdannii
    May 4, 2022 at 4:21
  • 1
    @curiousdannii only since the communist revolution. Before then written Chinese was essentially Classical Chinese, and even today formal writing still has substantial influence from Classical Chinese. And ofc Hong Kongers often have a strong aversion to writing in Mandarin (although I'm not sure if they usually still write in Classical Chinese or actually in Cantonese)
    – Tristan
    May 4, 2022 at 9:57

1 Answer 1


(As Tristan notes in their comment, ‘Chinese’ is a great many things. This answer deals specifically with Mandarin, primarily as it’s spoken in the central-northern parts of Mainland China. Other variants of Mandarin follow different stress patterns, and other Chinese languages naturally do so even more.)

Utterance level

On a sentence or utterance level, the opposition between stressed and unstressed is quite comparable to English, both in terms of how marked the acoustic difference between stressed and unstressed is, but also in terms of which sentence elements are associated with which stress pattern.

For example, pronouns, generic/indefinite objects and verbs with definite objects tend to be weakly stressed in both languages, while full noun phrases, intransitive verbs or verbs with generic/indefinite objects tend to receive stronger stress.

In English, prepositions are usually unstressed, whereas in Chinese (where they are really just a subtype of verbs used in chained constructions) they receive stronger stress. Chinese has a category of postpositions, however, which are usually untressed.

Within disyllabics

Within individual words, there is usually not much opposition in two-syllable lexemes if both syllables have a full tone (i.e., tone 1–4); the following all have fairly even stress on both syllables:

  • 火车 ˈhuǒˈchē ‘train’ (concrete noun)
  • 共和 ˈgòngˈhé ‘republicanism’ (abstract noun)
  • 高兴 ˈgāoˈxìng ‘happy’ (adjective)
  • 考虑 ˈkǎoˈlǜ ‘consider, ponder’ (verb)
  • 而且 ˈérˈqiě ‘also, furthermore’ (conjunction)
  • 多少 ˈduōˈshǎo ‘how much?’ (pronoun-ish)

If one of the syllables is a reduced tone (tone 5, 轻声 qīngshēng ‘clear tone’), however, the stress is exclusively on the other syllable. In practice, the reduced tone will always be on the last syllable in disyllabics, since the reduced tone is exclusively post-clitic:

  • 那么 ˈnàme ‘so, then, so [+ adj.]’ (conjunction/premodifier)
  • 蜘蛛 ˈzhīzhu ‘spider’
  • 多少 ˈduōshao ‘how much [+ noun] (premodifier)
  • 喜欢 ˈxǐhuan ‘like, enjoy’ (verb)

Certain tonal sequences can perceptually often sound like one syllable has more stress than the other, particularly the sequence 3-2 (as in 旅行 lǚxíng), where tone sandhi shortens and lowers the first syllable and the second syllable ends up sounding ‘stronger’ by comparison. Systematically, however, these belong with the first group above.

Within polysyllabics (> 2 syllables)

In polysyllabics, the opposition is more pronounced, even if all syllables have full tones.

Nearly all polysyllabic words in Chinese are compound noun phrases, and there is a tendency to avoid too many stressed/full-tone syllables within the same phrase, so outside of careful/rehearsed speech, one or more syllable will usually tend towards tonal/stress reduction (marked here with tone, but without stress marker):

  • 火车站 ˈhuǒchēˈzhàn ‘train station’
  • 自行车 ˈzìxíngˈchē ‘bicycle’
  • 公共汽车 ˈgōnggòngˈqìchē ‘bus’
  • 共和国 ˈgònghéˈguó ‘republic’

Chengyu do not necessarily follow this pattern, but they are usually analysable as sentences rather than simple or compound noun phrases, so this is perhaps not surprising. Many of them also falute rather highly and are most used in registers where colloquial processes like stress reduction are more likely to be avoided.

Even so, some chengyu have crossed over and become normal, everyday words, and these do often tend to undergo stress reduction like normal compounds:

  • 莫名其妙 ˈmòmíngˈqíˈmiào ‘unfathomable, inexplicable, for no apparent reason’
  • 乱七八糟 ˈluànqī(ˈ)bāˈzāo ‘messy, chaotic, at sixes and sevens’
  • for future reference, my pronouns are they/them. Otherwise a very good answer
    – Tristan
    Apr 25, 2022 at 8:41
  • @Tristan Sorry about that; edited! Apr 25, 2022 at 8:42
  • no worries! Thanks!
    – Tristan
    Apr 25, 2022 at 8:43

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