你好! [Nǐ hǎo!] is the most common form of greeting in contemporary Chinese. It can be used day or night.
The Chinese language contains relatively few distinct sounds; however, the same syllable can carry a variety of meanings depending on the tone with which it is spoken. The Mandarin dialect utilizes four tones and a neutral.
Tones are an integral part of each word. Words spoken with an incorrect tone, or without tone will not be understood by most native speakers. As you learn new vocabulary items be sure to memorize the tone along with the pronunciation and Chinese character.
In Pinyin the tone carried by a syllable is represented by a special accent mark above the vowel. In syllables with more than one vowel the tone mark is placed above the dominant vowel. This is the vowel which is pronounced with the mouth widest open. First tone is represented by a flat line above the dominate vowel: mā. Second tone is identified with a rising line: má. The third tone by a concave line open upward: mǎ. Fourth tone by a falling line: mà.
The neutral tone is given to unstressed syllables. Neutral syllables are indicated in Pinyin by the absence of tone marks.
MIT has a comprehensive introduction to the Mandarin tonal system. Take some time to really understand this feature of the language. http://web.mit.edu/jinzhang/www/pinyin/tones/
Chinese characters can change tones depending on the tone of the syllable it precedes. This sounds scary, but actually is easy to get used to...once you get the hang of tones anyway.
In this lesson we are introduced to the phrase 你好, two third tones nǐ and hǎo. It is very difficult to say two third tones sequentially without a pause, so in normal conversation nǐ hǎo becomes ní hǎo. The first third tone changes to a second tone. While the pronunciation of the third tone changes, pinyin rules dictate that the tone marker remains third tone.
There are a few more exceptions. Don't be too worried, we will deal with those as they come up.
Stative verbs are words that describe states of being. Some stative verbs can be thought of as adjectives in English, so are also commonly referred to as adjectival predicates. One very important difference between stative verbs and adjectives is that stative verbs are not preceded by a "to be" verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, been, has, have, had, do, did, does, can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, and must).
The first phrase we learn from the textbook, 你好, introduces this interesting characteristic of Chinese of grammar. 你好 is a complete sentence formed by the noun 你 [nǐ] and the stative verb 好 [hǎo]. In English we would say "You are good", but Chinese does not use the verb "to be" when describing states of being. Chinese adjectives incorporate the verb "to be", so are called adjectival predicates, or stative verbs. We will use many more examples of this grammatical structure in the following lessons.