Subtle nuances of particle usage in Sinitic languages and topolects

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Let's take the following three utterances that superficially and essentially all say the same thing — "give me face":


Gěi wǒ gè miànzi ba 給我個面子吧


Gěi gè miànzi ba 給個面子吧


Gěi gè miànzi bei 給個面子唄

The first version, which is how I would normally say it, is self-deferential and humble. With the explicit inclusion of "wǒ 我" ("me"), I'm putting myself down relative to the person to whom I am speaking.

The second version is less serious, less begging, less pleading.  "How about giving me some face, all right?"

The third version is more casual, even a bit playful, without any assumptions about whether the person you're talking to is actually expected to give you some face. "Wanna give me a little face, eh / huh?"

These three versions are all spoken in Mandarin, which does not have a particularly elaborate system of modal particles, but already we can see how important a role they play in communication between individuals.  A language like Cantonese, which has an even richer assembly of modal particles, relies on them heavily to express shades of meaning and emotion.


Addendum:  a note on bài / bei 唄

The character 唄 is composed of a mouth radical on the left as semantophore and a cowry shell on the right as phonophore.  The attachment of a mouth radical to a well-known character having a deep history (already on the oracle bones in the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC) indicates that the resultant character is being used for phonetic purposes, not semantic.

Cowries were used as money in ancient China (Shell money). Guo (1945) proposes that cowries used by the ancient Chinese dynasties in Central China must have come from the southeastern shores of China and areas further south, as the species of sea snail used as decoration and currency—Monetaria moneta (money cowry)—is not native to the eastern seashores of China. He further proposes that in addition to the cowry itself, the word for cowry, , is also an ancient loanword from languages of the south (which call it “bia”).

Compare Malay bia (cowry), Thai เบี้ย (bîia, cowry shell; money), Proto-Mon-Khmer *ɓa(a)j (bean, small weight or coin) > Khasi sbâi, 'bâi (money, cowry, shell), Khmer ពៃ (pɨy, obsolete small coin).

Alternatively, Starostin, Matisoff (2003) and Schuessler (2007) relate to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *bwap (snail), via (OC *paːds) < *pāps. If so it would be cognate with Jingpho pawp, lapawp (snail).

Middle Sinitic: /pɑiH/

Old Sinitic

(BaxterSagart): /*pˤa[t]-s/
(Zhengzhang): /*paːds/


唄 was employed twice to indicate a sound without regard to meaning.

The first, during the early medieval period, was to transcribe the sound of the Sanskrit word pāṭha पाठ (Soothill and Hodous, 1937) as it occurs in fànbài 梵唄 (Buddhist psalmody or chanting of prayers.

The second, during the early modern period, was to transcribe a colloquial modal particle with a variety of meanings, such as suggestiveness, concession, assertion, acceptance, obviousness or grudging agreement, etc.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Diana Shuheng Zhang]


  1. Thomas Rees said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    But what does “give me face” mean in English? I know 面子 can be “reputation”, to be saved or lost, but the only meaning I have for “give face” is a little – er – demotic.

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 3:19 pm

    Regarding possible connections of 貝 "cowry" beyond Chinese, I think there is a confusion of words derived from two originally distinct etyma for "bean" and "cowry" as a result of phonological and semantic convergence.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 3:29 pm

    give (someone) face

    1. To show or treat (someone) with respect, honor, and dignity. The phrase is a translation from Cantonese and is used primarily in reference to Chinese people, culture, and business. While working abroad in Hong Kong, I learned how important it is to give face to one's employer at all times. I always take care to give face to my husband at any opportunity.


    Etymology 1

    First used in the late 19th century (most likely in the colonial Hong Kong), a calque of dialectal Cantonese 畀面 (bei2 min2).

    give face

    (idiomatic) To honor; to pay respect. quotations ▲
    2000, Ko-lin Chin, Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity, page 200:

    We gave face to one another.

    2001, Wenshan Jia, The remaking of the Chinese character and identity in the 21st Century, page 135:

    While she gave face to the director, his subordinates, and her colleagues, she had no face left to herself.

    2003, Martin Krott, Kent Williamsson, China business ABC: the China market survival kit, page 51:

    As one example among many of good intent gone wrong, we can mention the western top manager who felt that he gave face to the Chinese side by suddenly showing up himself to negotiate instead of sending a lower ranked employee.

    See also

    save face

  4. Thomas Rees said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 4:23 pm

    Thank you! I should have looked at The Free Dictionary or Wiktionary instead of the OED

  5. David C. said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 5:29 pm

    While we are on the subject of saving face, does anyone know what is an idiomatic way of expressing “找個台階給他下" (literally, finding steps for someone to come down on) in English? The dictionary definition is to give someone an out, but it doesn't quite carry that nuance of dealing with a social superior who wants to backtrack on a promise or concede ground, but who doesn't want to openly admit changing his mind, so you need to, without appearing to do so, find an excuse for him.

    Might I add a fourth rhetorical variant that has an imperative tone: "你不給我面子, 是吧?" (Nǐ bù gěi wǒ miànzi, shì ba; you don't give me face, right?)

    Or the even more annoying "就當是給我一個面子" (Jiù dāng shì gěi wǒ yīgè miànzi; Just pretend you are giving me a face), usually a forceful plea for a favor when one has already declined.

  6. David Morris said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 5:56 pm

    I first read this at nearly 2 am (I couldn't sleep) and had the same problem as Thomas. An online search showed a number of definitions and I assumed that this related to respect and not to (not) pouting/scowling or cunnilingus.

    In what circumstance would someone say this? Would it be said by a senior to a junior or vice versa? I'm thinking in terms of English 'How about giving me a bit of respect here?', which may or may not be a good equivalent.

  7. AntC said,

    August 30, 2020 @ 8:07 am

    the only meaning I have for “give face” is a little – er – demotic.

    Indeed. And wikipedia includes that sense, right alongside the sense Prof Mair intends.

    I lived/worked in Hong Kong for a year 1991/92. I was very aware of the need to preserve the 'face' of senior staff. (I was implementing new technology: typically the youngsters 'got it' very quickly and were eager to adopt; but we all carefully paid attention to seniors' need to 'catch up' too — not, of course, that anybody put it in those terms.)

    I don't recall the phrase "give face" cropping up at all — neither from junior nor senior staff; nor from the Brit expats coaching me on cultural interaction. "Save face", "lose face" yes.

    So I have the same q's as David M. And I'm struggling to think of an adequate idiomatic English equivalent. Anglo business culture isn't like that: you respect a co-worker/boss because they're competent and knowledgeable. Or not. Respect must be earned, not given for the sake of 'form'.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    August 30, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    Whilst Britons don't explicitly "give face" to their superiors, the majority certainly nod in that direction. For example, at an Academic Board meeting, if the Principal were to come up with a totally insane and unworkable idea, most of those present would respond more along the lines of "I think that the Principal's suggestion is an excellent one, but …" rather than "The Principal is, as usual, talking out of his arsehole".

  9. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 30, 2020 @ 9:02 am

  10. Chris Button said,

    August 30, 2020 @ 10:41 am

    For what it's worth, Gordon Luce noted the Austroasiatic source of Burmese for "bean" back in 1940.

  11. Jared Adler said,

    September 1, 2020 @ 1:08 am

    I have no data to back it up, but from personal experience with the usage of 唄 (in the style of " 給個面子唄") I have noticed some patterns. Maybe someone more knowledgable can comment on whether they are accurate and why they are this way.

    – 唄 is used more frequently by women
    – 唄 is used less by people from Southern China
    – 唄 is not used by people from Taiwan at all and to Taiwanese it is distinctively PRC to the point that they often include it in an imitation/impression of a typical PRC accent when joking around

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