According to this article more than 95% of Chinese written in pinyin is perfectly comprehensible even without tone marks. With regard to the remaining 5%, often the context is sufficient to determine the intended word. To prevent any remaining ambiguities, marking less used homophones with tone marks would suffice:
|Pinyin||No Tones||Tone to be Indicated|
|wo||我 (16,790)||窩 (96)||握 (91)||臥 (30)|
|kan||看 (4,682)||刊 (5)||砍 (81)||坎 (7)|
|shang||上 (10,602)||傷 (132)||賞 (12)||尚 (42)|
The numbers which appear after each character refer to their relative numbers of occurrence as noted in the Xiandai Hanyu Pinyin Cidian (Beijing Language Institute Press, 1986). Based on these figures, only 1.3% of occurrences of Pinyin monosyllabic words spelled wo need to have their tones marked to distinguish them from the word wo which refers to first person singular (the unmarked case); only 2% of cases of Pinyin monosyllabic kan require tone markings to distinguish them from the most commonly occurring word meaning “to see”; only 1.8% of occurrences of shang require tone markings to differentiate them from the word meaning “on, above, mount”, and so on. Obviously, beginning students need only learn the unmarked forms which constitute the majority of cases as these are the easiest to remember.
The same method will be used in dealing with bisyllabic words. In any group of words which have the same segmental Pinyin spelling (that is, the same pronunciation except for tone), the tone markings will be omitted from the most common (unmarked) case, and only added to the remaining cases as distinguishers. For example:
zhidao 知道 (1,603) zhǐdǎo 指導 (189) zhídào 直到 (110)
If there is one morpheme which is the same in a group of bisyllabic words which have the same segmental pronunciation and spelling except for tone, then that morpheme need not be marked for tone; for example:
zhongxin 中心 193 zhōngxin 忠心 6 zhòngxin 重心 7 quanli 權利 21 quanlì 權力 16
After this, there remain homophones that are identical in tone as well. A number of those are very frequent one syllable words. I’ve noticed that even in Dutch (my native language, and not a language that is particularly encumbered with homophones) there are frequently used short words that have homophones. Context always seems to eliminate ambiguity. However, in theory it is possible to remove all remaining ambiguity from those words using different spelling.
Suggestions for Chinese:
|Basic Forms||Variant Spelling Forms|
|de||得||(verb suffix)||d||的||(possessive); di 地 (-ly)|
|ta||他||he||taa||她||“she”; to 它 “it”|
|xiang||想||think||xang||向||“towards”; xanq 像 “like”|
|you||有||have||yeu||由||“from”; iu 又 “again”|
With this, Chinese would be even more clear than Dutch. Isn’t that remarkable. It is often stated that Chinese could never be alphabetized because of its huge problem of homophonous words. While in fact, according to the article even pinyin with hardly any accents (tone marks) or variant spellings is perfectly comprehensible.¹
1. Full tone marks would of course be useful for foreign students learning the language. But only in a very limited sense. In order to be able to speak and understand Chinese, the student has to learn the correct pronunciation of words anyway.