Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma.
Translated from Chinese, this means "Does Mother scold horses or
do horses scold Mother"? How can this be?
Actually, it doesn't necessarily mean this. In fact, it only has
this meaning if spoken with the correct tones. In Mandarin
(putongha) Chinese, there are five tones (Cantonese can
have up to eleven). The tone represents whether the voice is rising
or falling while the vowel is being spoken? This is used in English
too, actually. Think about how your voice changes while saying "Huh?"
or "Really?" in an exaggerated way. First the tone of your voice goes
down and then it comes up.
The five tones are up, down-up, down, no tone and a very short vowel.
For an easy way to remember them, think of a man going on a trip like this:
_ / v \ .
First tone: The man walks along level ground (no tone).
Second tone: The man walks up a volcano (up tone).
Third tone: The man walks into the caldera and out again (down-up tone).
Fourth tone: The man walks down the volcano (down tone).
Fifth tone: Having inhaled noxious fumes, the man dies (short tone).