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The Ups and Downs of 一 Yī in Chinese

The Chinese word and character  一 (yī) is one of the first that people learn, and for good reason. My dictionary devotes about 6 pages of words made with it. It not only means “one,” but is used as the equivalent for the English articles “a” and “an.”

Other definitions are related to this basic definition and include:

  • union
  • uniformity
  • whole
  • all
  • once
  • each
  • every time

Thus, you see it in words like

一併     ㄧ ˊ ㄅㄧㄥˋ      yí bìng     (all, wholly, together with)

一次     ㄧˊ ㄘˋ               yí cì          (once, one time)

一道     ㄧˊ ㄉㄠˋ           yí dào       (together, on the same path)

一共     ㄧˊ ㄍㄨㄥˋ       yí gòng     (all together, in all, all told)

一刻     ㄧˊ ㄎㄜˋ           yí kè         (15 minutes, a quarter)

一起     ㄧˋ ㄑㄧˇ           yì qǐ         (in the same place, together)

一些     ㄧˋ ㄒㄧㄝ         yì xiē        (some, a few, somewhat)

一直     ㄧˋㄓˊ               yì zhí         (always, constantly)

How do you know when to use which tone?

In the dictionary, 一 (yī) is always shown as having a 1st tone. When counting, as in 1,2, 3… ( 一,二, 三。。。) it is always pronounced with a first tone. However, in sentences the spoken tone is based on what tone follows that particular “yi”.

  • It stays as a 1st tone when counted as “one,” but might change to different tones when counting other groups, such as one hundred 一百 ㄧˋ ㄅㄞˇ (yì bǎi) or one thousand 一千 ㄧˋ ㄑㄧㄢ (yì qiān).
  • It changes to a 2nd tone if followed by a 4th tone or a neutral tone.
  • It changes to a 4th tone if followed by a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd tone.

When you listen to native Chinese speakers, you can hear that this makes sense. It is similar to the English choice of using “a” or “an” as an article in front of a noun. Nouns in English beginning with a vowel or open mouth sound typically get “an” as the article. It depends on what sounds right and is easier to say. Just as it is harder to say “a elephant” than “an elephant,” it is harder to keep the 1st tone “yi” when other tones follow in speaking.

Other “yi” characters do not follow this pattern for various reasons. It can depend on whether or not there are 破音字 (pō yīn zì) that make a certain tone necessary. In many cases, the word has already been designed to sound right. Also, there are not as many other words based off of the other “yi” characters.

After studying this, I know I will be able to pronounce my “yi” words more correctly and consistently. I hope it has helped you, too.