Cantonese sentence-final particles

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Even if you don't know any Cantonese but listen carefully to people speaking it, you probably can tell that it has an abundance of particles.  For speakers of Mandarin who do not understand Cantonese, the proliferation of particles, especially in utterance final position, is conspicuous.  Non-speakers of Cantonese, confronted by all these aa3, ge3, gaa3, laa1, lo1, mei6, sin1, tim1, and so on naturally wonder why there are so many particles in this language, what are their various functions, why they are often drawn out (elongated), and how they arose.

Cantonese speakers, on the other hand, just take them in stride as a natural part of their expressive equipment and don't think that there is anything unusual about them.

So essential and integral are particles to Cantonese composition that they are even imported into English sentences of e-mails written by Hong Kong students:

James, Gregory.  "Cantonese particles in Hong Kong students' English e-mails."  English Today, 17.3 (July 1, 2001), 9-16

Abstract

With the popularisation of the Internet, the use of e-mails and computer-based chats (CBCs) has increased dramatically among university students. An interesting feature of such communication, however, is that a written medium is treated like speech (cf. Maynor, 1994). Conversations turn into notes where grammatical accuracy and conventional formalities take a backseat to instant communication. In the case of on-campus CBCs, informality and a certain disregard of the conventions of standard English are all the more manifest.

It is commonly believed in Hong Kong that this general freedom to write 'bad English' has encouraged the habit of randomly incorporating Cantonese words into English e-mails. Yet an examination of students' e-mails and icq ('I Seek You') communications reveals that far from 'polluting' their English by substituting Cantonese words haphazardly for English ones, or by applying Cantonese structures to their English writing, students tend to incorporate certain kinds of Cantonese words systematically into their texts for specific identifiable purposes.

Just as we saw that there is great latitude of opinions about how many tones there are in Cantonese, so do opinions differ concerning the number of sentence final particles in the language:

From Gregory James, "Cantonese particles in Hong Kong students' English e-mail":

Yau (1965) lists 206 forms
Yau, S. C. 1965. 'A study of the functions and of the presentation of Cantonese sentence particles.' MA, University of Hong Kong.Ball (1924:122–25) 77 forms

Ball (1924:122–25) 77 forms
Ball, J. Dyer. 1883, 1924. Cantonese made easy. 4th edition. Hong Kong: Kelly and Walsh.

Egerod (1984) gives 62
Egerod, S. C. 1984. 'Verbal and sentential marking in Indo-European and East Asian languages.' In Computational Analyses of Asian and African Languages 22, 71–82.

Neidle (1990) claims between 35 and 40
Neidle, C. 1990. 'X|-structures and sentence-final particles in Cantonese.' Syntax Workshop at the Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, 29th May. Abstract in CSLI Calendar, 24 May, vol. 5, 29.

Kwok (1984:8), 30
Kwok, H. 1984. Sentence particles in Cantonese. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, Centre of Asian Studies.

Matthews & Yip (1994:340) list 36
Matthews, S. & Yip, V. 1994. Cantonese. A comprehensive grammar. London & New York NY: Routledge.

So the number is variously estimated at 30 to 206.  One wonders:

(a) what the reasons are for the variation — pronunciation variation? different social or geographical varieties? uncertainty about the boundaries of the category? more or less complete scholarship by different authors? All of the above?

(b) what the historical situation is — e.g. Cantonese has more particles than Mandarin — is this because Mandarin has lost some or because Cantonese has invented some? — and if they were invented, what their history/etymology was?

(c) a good description not on the list above….

When I was teaching at the University of Hong Kong during 2002-2003, after a public lecture that I gave on the place of topolects within Sinitic, someone in the audience suggested that many Cantonese particles are derived from substrate Austroasiatic languages of the region.  I later tracked down a few articles by the questioner, and after reading them I felt that what he said made sense.  I forget the man's name now, though I think it might have been Yau Shun-Chiu, and I have not been able to relocate the articles I read (as I recall, they seem to have been published in local newspapers and journals).

I believe that Yau Shun-Chiu has been based in Paris for some years now, but he has a web presence here.  Since his thesis was on particles, he may have been the questioner at my talk and the author of the interesting articles that I am no longer able to locate.

There is some discussion of an Austroasiatic substrate in Ann Yue-Hashimoto's The Dancun Dialect of Taishan (she says that it's possible but premature, whereas the Tai substrate is likely).

Stephen Matthews remarks:

I don't think we have a good explanation for the profusion of particles in Cantonese, but the best clue may be to observe how new particles come into being. For example there is now a particle /lu33/ which Virginia [Yip, Stephen's co-author,] does not use and which we only began to notice in the 21st century. There are now one or two theses on it and the consensus seems to be that it is a variant of /laa3/. If so, this illustrates how families of related particles such as wo33/wo21/wo23 develop.

One of the sources cited by James Gregory above takes us back to 1883, so we have some historical depth for further study of these issues:

Ball, J. Dyer (James Dyer) (1847-1919)

Cantonese made easy: a book of simple sentences in the Cantonese dialect, with free and literal translations, and directions for the rendering of English grammatical forms in Chinese.  Hongkong: Printed at the 'China Mail' office, 1888

If you want to hear some of the Cantonese utterance final particles in vivid action, listen to the clips here:  "Cantonese intonation" (4/20/15).

[Thanks to Mark Liberman]



19 Comments

  1. Chas Belov said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    When I studied Cantonese, it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a poster on Cantonese sentence-final particles based on the sentence 落雨lok yuh.

    So,
    Lok yuh. It's raining.
    Lok yuh la. It's raining, but it wasn't a moment ago,
    Lok yuh ge. It's raining. That's how it is.
    Lok yuh ah ma. It's raining, and you're going out without an umbrella?
    Lok yuh tim. It's raining, and I thought it was going to be sunny.
    Lok yuh loh. It's raining and my whole day is ruined.
    Lok yuh me? It's raining. What a surprise!
    etc.

  2. flow said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 4:57 am

    @Chas Belov your list makes the particles look a lot like German modal particles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_modal_particle) to me:

    Es regnet doch.
    Es regnet ja.
    Es regnet ja doch.
    Es regnet halt.
    Es regnet eh.
    Es regnet ja doch eh.
    Es regnet schon noch.
    Es regnet ja doch eh schon noch.(?)
    Es regnet wohl.
    Es regnet wohl schon.
    Es regnet schließlich.
    Es regnet vielleicht.
    Es regnet ja mal vielleicht. (cf. Das regnet ja mal vielleicht.)

    And so on.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 6:31 am

    CHALLENGE!

    Would someone please try to translate flow's list?

  4. Chris Godwin said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    Here's a try at Flow's list:
    … doch 'But it's raining! (contrary to what you just said)'
    …ja 'But it's raining!'
    …ja doch 'But in fact/after all, it's raining.'
    …halt 'It's raining and that's all there is to it.'
    …eh / ja doch eh ???
    … schon noch 'It's *still* raining.'
    …ja doch eh schon noch ???
    … wohl 'It's probably raining.'
    …wohl schon 'It's probably raining already.'
    …schliesslich 'At last! Some rain!'
    …vielleicht 'Perhaps it's raining.'
    …da mal vielleicht. 'There's a good chance it's raining.'

    Corrections welcome!

  5. A German said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 8:07 am

    There are some mistakes in what Chris wrote:

    – doch (stress on 'doch'): Contrary to what was thought, it is raining. This does not mean i'm contradicting someone, for that 'wohl' is used.
    – ja: Oh, it's raining! (expressing surprise)

    – ja doch: Contrary to what was thought, it is raining and I'm surprised about it.

    – halt: It's raining, there's nothing that can be done about it.

    – eh/ja doch eh: It's raining anyway.

    – schon noch (stress on 'schon'): Contrary to what you said, it *is* still raining.

    – schon noch (stress on 'regnet'): No worries, i'ts going to rain at some point.

    – wohl (stress on 'regnet'): It appears to be raining./I hear (somebody told me) it's raining.

    – wohl (stress on 'wohl'): Contrary to what you said, it is raining.

    – wohl schon (stress on 'wohl'): Contrary to what you said, it is already raining.

    – schließlich: That's because it's raining.

    -ja doch eh schon noch & ja mal vielleicht: make no sense to me

    That should be it. The rest is fine. It's important to keep in mind that many modal particles change their meaning depending on whether or not they're stressed.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    These kinds of sentence-final particle (sometimes being little more than interjections, at other times being grammatically derived) seem to be relatively common up and down East Asia, although perhaps not quite as prolifically as in Cantonese. I know that Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Mongolian have them. Korean seems to have them, too. Unfortunately, these particles play only a peripheral role in Western (Latin-based) accounts of grammar and therefore miss out on the scrutiny given to other parts of speech. I know that my Vietnamese teachers dismissed them as 'meaningless'. This is a pity since they play an incredibly important role in conveying meaning. In fact, the ability to use them properly is half the battle in learning to sound like a native!

    It would be an interesting exercise to do an interlinguistic comparison of these kinds of particle, but first you would need to develop a systematic analysis of the nuances they convey (affirmation, confirmation, tentativeness, contradiction, etc.).

  7. Michael Watts said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    It doesn't surprise me at all that this kind of sentence particle would be inserted into an otherwise foreign-language text; unlike words with clearer semantics, they can be nearly impossible to translate. This reminds me of one of my favorite ABC dictionary entries, glossing 又 as "again" with the example sentence 又是他 again-be-pron.3sg "It's him again. (disapprovingly)".

    I knew a girl who couldn't help sprinkling the english particle 'like' throughout her spoken chinese (several times per sentence). I personally will add the english sentence-initial particles "so" (in my mind, indicating basically "I'm continuing to speak" or "I'm saying something complicated" — I'm not actually fully clear on why I use this) and "well" ("less than full agreement") to chinese textual communications. Conversely, I very often insert the chinese particle 吧 into english communications with chinese people.

    Long ago, I asked a chinese teacher how to link later sentences back to earlier ones, as I would naturally do in english with "and". The response was "don't do that".

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

    From Allan Madin:

    Interesting thread! Here are my two cents:

    Es regnet doch.
    But it's raining
    ("doch" can be used to contradict a previous negative. (E.g. 甲: Du kommst nicht mit/you're not coming 乙: doch!/yes I am) but it is also an emphatic particle "das ist doch unglaublich"/ that's just incredible)

    Es regnet ja.
    It's *raining*
    (e.g., 甲: why did you bring the wash in? 乙: es regnet ja)

    Es regnet ja doch.
    It is *raining*, after all OR Yes it is raining! (if you had said it wasn't) OR it's raining! (甲: do you want to go to the park? 乙: right now? 甲: yeah, why not! 乙: "es regnet ja doch")

    Es regnet halt.
    It's just raining

    Es regnet eh.
    It's raining anyway

    Es regnet ja doch eh.
    Anyway, it *is* raining after all

    Es regnet schon noch.
    [don't worry] it's gonna rain
    (I need to double check this with a native speaker, but my sense is that when "schon," which means "already," and "noch," which means "still", are used together like this, they give the simple present—"es regnet"—a future or even future anterior anterior sense (Cf. es wird schon noch klappen/it'll will work out in the end). The difference between "es wird geregnet haben"/"it will have rained" and "es regnet schon noch," at least to my ear, is that the latter suggests a reassuring confidence in the inevitability of its raining. Exaggerating the sense, one could say "Just as the world spins on its axis and the stars wheel in the heavens, just as the seasons change, snows melt, and new flowers bloom, just as all that is unsettled comes, in the fullness of time, to rest in its proper place, so too, "es regnet schon noch") ;-)

    Es regnet ja doch eh schon noch.(?)
    1) and on top of all that, it's still raining anyway
    Unless I'm mistaken you have to group "schon" with "eh" in this sentence, not with "noch" like in the last sentence. "Eh schon" literally means "anyway already," and it conveys the sense that a situation is already quite bad enough (e.g. Ich habe eh schon soviel zu tun/ I've already got so much to do)

    Es regnet wohl.
    It's probably raining

    Es regnet wohl schon.
    It's probably already raining

    Es regnet schließlich.
    After all, it's raining/in the final analysis, it's raining

    Es regnet vielleicht.
    It might rain

    Es regnet ja mal vielleicht. (cf. Das regnet ja mal vielleicht.)
    There might be a bit of rain (das regnet is a northern variant, I think)

    My best attempt! I'm happy to be corrected.

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

    Es hat mal geregnet. There was a little shower a while ago.

    Es regnet mal. Haven't you noticed it's raining?

    Es regnet jetzt. It's raining now.

    Es regnet nun. Nevertheless, it's raining.

    Es regnet aber. How can we, it's raining!

    Es regnet immer. Well, here we are in Flensburg.

    Es regnet nimmer. Well, here we are in Mali.

    Es regnet auch. On top of that, it's raining.

    Es regnet nur. At least it's not snowing.

  10. raempftl said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    The German modal particles have the added difficulty that the same words can be used as adjectives or adverbs and as a modal particle.

    Vielleicht as an adverb:

    Es regnet vielleicht. – It may rain.

    An a modal particale:

    Das regnet vielleicht. – Wow. Look at the rain coming down! Unbelievable!!!

  11. David Marjanović said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

    …eh / ja doch eh ???

    It is raining, in accordance with my actual or sarcastic hopes.

    -ja doch eh schon noch & ja mal vielleicht: make no sense to me

    Don't bother worrying, it's gonna rain sometime after all;
    Keep in mind that it's perhaps going to rain at some point.

    Not all of these options are native to me, there's geographic variation. I'll mention, though, that the consonant-free sentences [aˈɛɪ], [ɪˈɛa] and [aˈɛɪa] are grammatical in southeastern dialects like mine. :-þ

  12. flow said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    Ok, I'll try a few myself. One must say that A German is right in that the sentences are hard/impossible to get right when they are out of context *and* without stress marks.

    Es regnet doch.—"Aber es *regnet* doch" (how can you think of leaving the house when) it's raining (after all/don't you see).—"Und es regnet *doch*" (turns out) it's raining (after all/unlike we thought).

    Es regnet ja.—"Ach, es *regnet* ja" (hey look) it's raining! (surprise).—"Der Gärtner kommt schon nicht. Es regnet ja." (don't worry/never mind) the gardener won't/isn't bound to come. (I mean,) it's raining (, right?). (indicating shared knowledge)

    Es regnet ja doch.—"Es *regnet* ja doch" = "Es *regnet* ja" It's raining, (remember?) (a bit awkward but you can build a story for it).—"Es regnet ja *doch*" It's going to rain (anyway/as always).

    Es regnet halt.—"Es *regnet* halt." (That's just because) it's raining.—stress on "halt" not possible.

    Es regnet eh.—"Es regnet *eh*" = "Es regnet ja *doch*" = "Es regnet *sowieso*"

    Es regnet ja doch eh.—You must feel the force with this one. Let it start in a low, soft tone, make each word louder and shriller than the preceding one. Although the hopelesser version starts louder and higher, and lingers on a colorless, drawn-out "eh". Same as "Es regnet *eh*", with added emphasis on how well we all know that what they call the weather in this part of the world makes even hopelessness irrelevant.

    Es regnet schon noch.—"Es regnet *schon* noch" (There's no doubt) it's still raining / it's going to rain.—"Es *regnet* schon noch" (Don't worry, I'm sure) it's going to rain (soon).

    Es regnet ja doch eh schon noch.(?)—This one is hard until you realize it's reassurance ("es *regnet* schon noch") plus defiance/lack thereof ("eh") plus nation-building ("ja doch"). The "ja" expresses sharedness of knowledge about circumstances, and the "doch" emphasizes that this apparently forgotten thing we're talking about is indeed known by me and you, isn't it? So, maybe: Don't you know / Remember, it's gonna rain, at some point, anyways (isn't it?). It's not everyday that you'll hear a phrase like this. Aber *mal* kann mans dann doch *schon* noch hören, wa?

    Es regnet wohl.—"Es *regnet* wohl" (not sure but) it's raining (isn't it?).—"Es regnet *wohl*" (You're wrong, and I'm right. Take this:) It's raining (screaming caps). This pattern is a favorite with preschoolers. "Hat er *nich* gesagt!"-"Hat er *wohl* gesagt!"-"NEIN!"-"DOCH!".

    Es regnet wohl schon.—"Keine Ahnung warum sie so aufgeregt am Telefon war, aber es *regnet* wohl schon" No idea why she was so upset on the phone, but I guess it's already raining.—"Es regnet *wohl* schon" (preschoolers having an argument).—"Ich hätte es auch nicht gedacht, aber was ich so höre… es regnet wohl *schon*" I wouldn't have thought so, but what I'm hearing is that it's indeed raining.

    Es regnet schließlich.—"Es *regnet* schließlich" = "Es *regnet* halt"

    Es regnet vielleicht.—"Es *regnet* vielleicht". Maybe it's going to rain.—It's possible but not too natural to say "Es *regnet* vielleicht" to express "*das* regnet ja mal (vielleicht)" Look how it's pawh-ring!

    Es regnet ja mal vielleicht. (cf. Das regnet ja mal vielleicht.)—See the latter, above.—"Es *regnet* ja mal vielleicht" (You never know but) it could rain at some point. The 'ja' again refers to our shared knowledge / makes the sentence a reminder of sorts.

    Geht doch.

  13. flow said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

    "Es *regnet* nur." (Don't worry,) it's only raining.—"Es regnet *nur*" It's nothing but rain (all the time, all over the place).

    The first makes it a bagatelle, the second, a catastrophe.

  14. flow said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 6:40 pm

    @Allan Madin

    "Es regnet ja doch eh schon noch.(?)
    1) and on top of all that, it's still raining anyway"—"Und *dann* *regnets* ja auch noch.". This usage of "dann" is not so much the logical conclusion or the temporal sequence, it's more like the Japanese そのうえ. You *can* say "Und *dann* regnets ja auch noch *eh*" or "Und *dann* regnets ja *eh* auch noch" in order to mention that we don't have to mention that it's just raining on top of all that for the spite of it. The weather is bad just because it can. Depending on the situation, this "dann" can also be used not to indicate "on top of all that" but "that said, you forgot to mention that"; sort of a 'reminder' akin to "ja" and "doch".

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

    From Norman Leung:

    It's fascinating! I had a discussion with my parents the other day, and we were talking about both this particular topic, as well as the Cantonese 4-syllable onomatopoeia that ends up turning into 2-syllable expressions with initial consonant clusters.

    e.g.
    bing-ling bang-lang (generic banging noises)
    –> bling-blang

    kik-lik kuk-luk (clacking noises)
    –> klik-kluk

    gwi-li gwa-la (cry/scream noises, often from a baby)
    –> gwi-gla

    fi-li fet-let (sniffling noises, associated with colds and flus)
    –> fli-flet

  16. the50person said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    Interesting article! The utterance final particles are also pretty much present in Singlish, which is heavily influenced by Chinese varieties.

    Lah – originates from 啦 and has many tonal variants, each with their own function.

    "Okay lah!" if light, means agreement
    "Whatever lah." if slightly dragged out, means 'whatever I don't care anymore'
    "Drink lah!" just drink it!
    "Sit lah!" feel free to sit! :)
    "No lah!" nah, that's not the case.
    "Dun worry, can one lah." reassurance
    "Go and die lah!" used to curse, but sometimes also in a joking way.

    Wat – used to contradict what was said by your convo partner.
    "You never give me wat!" (it's not my fault that) you didn't give it to me!
    – said in a low tone, /somewhat/ similar to 嘛,
    "This game not bad wat" lit. 'Hmm this game is quite ok'

    Mah
    Meh
    Lor
    Leh
    Hor
    Sia
    and quite a few more

    A good visual illustrated some uses: https://languagenthought.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/can.jpg?w=588&h=308
    Ah/Ar

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:02 am

    From Tang Pui Ling:

    Apart from putting particles into English emails, particles written in English spelling forms are also very common in students' Cantonese writing, like WhatsApp messages. For example,

    佢走咗lu
    –He has left already.

    我溫緊書law
    –I am doing revision.

  18. A German said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    @Allan Madin

    Es regnet ja.
    It's *raining*
    (e.g., 甲: why did you bring the wash in? 乙: es regnet ja)
    This example is not idiomatic. 'ja' cannot be used to explain/justify one's actions like this. The only situation where you'd say "Es regnet ja" is when you're surprised it's raining.

    The same goes for this example:
    甲: do you want to go to the park? 乙: right now? 甲: yeah, why not! 乙: "es regnet ja doch"
    Here 'ja' just doesn't work. Without it, the sentence is possible although for me it would be more natural to reply: "Aber es *regnet* doch!" or simply "Weil es regnet."

    I also have to disagree with your comments on 'Es *regnet* schon noch'. While it *is* meant to reassure it's doesn't carry any sense of certainty, to me anyway. It's like the english "I'm sure it's gonna be fine" which is said to reassure but actually *doesn't* mean you're certain. That's my impression anyway.

    @flow:

    Re: ja doch
    When it's not used to express surprise at defied expectations it can also be used to express futility or a defeatist attitude. It's used almost exclusively when talking about the future. An example: Wir können Pläne machen soviel wir wollen, am Ende es ja doch (eh) nicht. (We can make plans all we want, but it's never gonna work.)
    'eh' might add some emphasis

    When reminding someone of something, both 'ja' and 'doch' are possible. You use "ja" to indicate shared knowledge or maybe to jog someone's memory in a friendly way, but also when you consider that something *should* be shared knowledge, even if it isn't. In this way it can carry a connotation of "if you don't know this, you're stupid". This is only done when this "failure" has not had any consequences. However if someone has forgotten something or is ignoring a fact for some other reason, and is acting accordingly, you use 'doch'.
    Like so:
    A: Was willst du machen? B: Nicht rausgehen, es regnet ja.
    A: Willst du rausgehen? B: Nein, es regnet doch!

    "Es regnet schließlich." and "Es regnet halt." are *not* the same. While both give a reason. 'halt' always implies that a fact can't be changed and must be accepted. 'schließlich' carries no such connotation.

    Es regnet ja mal vielleicht. (cf. Das regnet ja mal vielleicht.)—See the latter, above.—"Es *regnet* ja mal vielleicht" (You never know but) it could rain at some point. The 'ja' again refers to our shared knowledge / makes the sentence a reminder of sorts.
    This is almost correct. But to convey thiat meaning we need to change the word order. It should be "Es *regnet* ja vielleicht mal."

    Es regnet ja doch eh schon noch.(?)
    No matter what anyone says, I don't think I've ever heard that many particles combined in real life. At some point it just stops making sense. I'm German so I should know.

  19. TR said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

    Ancient Greek is another language that's notorious for its large inventory (though nowhere near 206!) of particles with hard-to-define pragmatic meanings: δή, ἄρα, μήν etc. Unlike the Cantonese ones, these mostly occur in "postpositive" position, i.e. as the second word in a sentence or some smaller syntactic or prosodic domain. I too would like to see a cross-linguistic study of such particle inventories.

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