Particles are not unimportant

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People studying Sinitic and other languages featuring particles tend to deemphasize them as some sort of window dressing — ornament, elaboration — not much different from intonation or emphasis.  Witness this comment by an accomplished student of several Asian languages:

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 particles, but first you would need to develop a systematic analysis of the nuances they convey (affirmation, confirmation, tentativeness, contradiction, etc.).

Particles may convey essential aspectual, modal, structural, and other functions.  Here's some evidence for the importance of particles from the language acquisition experience of a bilingual child.

Mark Metcalf and his wife, Terry, recently spent three weeks visiting their son, Ben, and his wife, Claire, in Taiwan with their just-turned-three son, Austin.

Mark reports that Ben and Claire have made a serious effort to give the grandson, Austin, the benefits of both English and Chinese (Taiwan Mandarin [Táiwān guóyǔ 台灣國語]). Both Ben and Claire are bilingual. However, given the realities of the environment, most of the grandson's time is spent interacting in Chinese. Consequently, when the grandparents, Mark and Terry (who are also both bilingual) Skype / Line or meet Austin in person, they're encouraged to interact with him only in English. Their observations? Austin usually has no issues switching languages to appropriately communicate. When his parents speak in Chinese, he responds in Chinese. And in English, English. Intentional differentiation is not even a 'thing.'  However, at times when he's speaking English, he'll mix in appropriate / Chinese particles to clarify his meaning – specifically le 了, ba 吧, ma 嗎, etc.

I wonder if that sort of insertion is common among toddlers elsewhere.


Selected readings



  1. David Moser said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 1:04 am

    I think it's common. My daughter, who is to a great extent Chinese-English bilingual, used to add Chinese particles and grammatical markers into her English sentences when she was very young. Examples:

    "Oh, my dad can play lots of instruments. Piano 啊,guitar 啊, trumpet 啊…"

    "Mommy, do you like ice cream?"
    "Yes, dear."
    "Daddy, do you like ice cream?"
    "You see? We 都 like ice cream!"

    "Leah, don't forget to give me some cake, too."
    "Okay, Daddy. Mommy 呢?"

  2. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 2:09 am

    "Leah, don't forget to give me some cake, too." "Okay, Daddy. Mommy 呢?"

    When Hill Gates and I were married, after several years living in Taiwan, altho' neither us were
    native spkrs, WE used to do use 呢 like that in English,too. Sometimes, Chinese grammar
    is just more efficient.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 4:59 am

    I must admit, final 嗎 (ma) is a very useful way of pronouncing a question mark when (a) the fact that one is asking a question is not necessarily clear, and (b) the person to whom the question is addressed speaks some Mandarin.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 9:58 am

    Just in terms of blaming "Latin-based" grammatical analysis of non-Western languages for inattention to particles, not too many generations ago the modal Western scholar would have had ancient Greek as well as Latin as part of his education, and particles are ubiquitous (if often hard to handle in translation into many modern European languages) in ancient Greek. To be fair, I do recall being told by one of my college Greek professors that some but not all of the common particles had become semantically bleached to near-nothingness over time and if we were reading a later text (e.g. the New Testament) we could safely ignore those …

  5. David Marjanović said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 10:41 am

    I wonder if that sort of insertion is common among toddlers elsewhere.

    That's half of what Singlish is, isn't it?

    Anyway, for a wider definition of "toddlers", Ramzan Kadyrov is widely mocked for adding [dɔːn] to every clause he says, no matter if he's speaking Chechen or Russian. It's a contraction of the Chechen filler /duj huna/, literally "there is for you".

  6. languagehat said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 10:48 am

    not too many generations ago the modal Western scholar would have had ancient Greek as well as Latin as part of his education, and particles are ubiquitous (if often hard to handle in translation into many modern European languages) in ancient Greek.

    But the Greek particles were not really addressed (at least by my teachers and the scholars I read) except in general, hand-wavy terms; I never even began to get a grip on them until I started getting a good understanding of Russian (a language where particles are ubiquitous and essential).

  7. Coby said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 10:55 am

    I once heard a child in Barcelona, where most children are bilingual in Catalan and Spanish, say "no ne quiero ("I don't want any"), inserting the Catalan particle ne (equivalent to French en) into Spanish. I don't know how prevalent that is.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 12:00 pm

    Here's what Wiktionary has to say about Catalan "ne":

    ne (enclitic, contracted 'n, proclitic en, contracted proclitic n')

    represents an indeterminate number or quantity of a given noun
    represents a place (associated with the action described by the verb) that would be introduced by the preposition de
    replaces a phrase introduced by the preposition de
    replaces the object of a causative verb

    Usage notes

    ne cannot be used more than once as the object of a given verb.
    While ne is usually used to replace phrases beginning with the preposition de, adverbial phrases (eg de pressa) are replaced with hi.
    ne is sometimes used instead of ho to replace an adjective or indefinite noun as the predicate of a verb.
    ne is sometimes used popularly to add emphasis to a sentence: in this sense, it has no translation in English.
    -ne is the full (plena) form of the pronoun. It is normally used after verbs ending with consonant or ⟨u⟩, or between some adverbs/pronouns and a verb. In some varieties of Catalan (Balearic/Valencian) it can also occur in sentence-initial position.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 1:34 pm

    @David Marjanović

    I'm very interested in Ramzan Kadyrov's [dɔːn] ("there is for you"). What would be the equivalent in other languages? Would it be something like "ya know" in English?

  10. TR said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 1:39 pm

    the Greek particles were not really addressed (at least by my teachers and the scholars I read) except in general, hand-wavy terms

    Indeed, I often have to wean students off the habit of translating every other Greek particle as "indeed", since textbooks seem to think this a sufficiently informative translation for many or most of them.

    Though hand-wavy terms may actually be the right kind of terms with which to describe particles, since they often fill the same functions that hand gestures do in less well-endowed languages. I never really understood δή (a reasonably common particle which textbooks, naturally, gloss as "indeed") until the day it clicked for me that it functions more or less identically to a specific common conversational gesture.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 2:25 pm

    @TR: It's been many decades since I had occasion to focus on the issue, but I guess Latin has fewer particles proper but instead has various common random-behavior-tic adverbs whose added informational value, if any, in the sentences in which they appear is often obscure to the Anglophone student. Rather than "indeed," I recall being told in high school (not necessarily by the teacher herself, mind you) that you could often get away with Englishing those as "moreover."

  12. cameron said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 3:05 pm

    Ramzan Kadyrov's verbal tic is somewhat reminiscent of how Che Guevara got his nickname.

  13. Rodger C said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 3:49 pm

    I never even began to get a grip on them until I started getting a good understanding of Russian

    Greek ge : Russian zhe of course. This jumped out at me when I first studied Greek.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 3:50 pm

    Re "δή", Middle Liddell says —

    Particle used to give greater exactness, to the word or words which it influences (prob. a shortened form of ἤδη, Lat. jam) now, in truth, indeed, surely, really.
    I.Usage of δή with single words:
    1.after Adjectives, οἶος δή, μόνος δή, all alone, Od., etc.; esp. such as imply magnitude, μέγας δή, μικρὸς δή, etc.; often with Superlatives, μέγιστος δή, κράτιστος δή quite the greatest, confessedly the best, Thuc.; so with Numerals, ὀκτώ δὴ προέηκα ὀϊστούς I have shot full eight arrows, Il.; εἷς δή one only, Eur., etc.
    2.after Adverbs, πολλάκις δή many times and oft, often ere now, Lat. jam saepe, Il.; ὀψὲ δὲ δή quite late, id=Il.; νῦν δή even now, now first, now at length, Xen., etc.:— τότε δή at that very time, Thuc.; αὐτίκα δὴ μάλα on the very spot, Plat.; also, ναὶ δή yea verily, Il.; οὐ δή surely not, Soph.
    3.with Verbs, δὴ γὰρ ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσι for verily I saw him, Il.
    4.with Substantives, ἐς δὴ τὸ Ἄργος τοῦτο . . well to this A. they came, Hdt.; τέλος δή its complete end, Aesch.; ironically, Lat. scilicet, εἰσήγαγε τὰς ἑταιρίδας δή the pretended courtesans, Xen.
    5.with Pronouns, to mark strongly, ἐμὲ δή a man like me, Hdt.; σὺ δή you of all persons, id=Hdt.; οὗτος δή this and no other, id=Hdt.; ὅς δή who plainly, Il.:—with indef. Pronouns, ἄλλοι δή others be they who they may, id=Il.; δή τις some one or other, Lat. nescio quis, Plat.; δή τι in any way, whatever it be, Il., Hdt. reference to whole clauses: continue a narrative, so then, so, τότε μὲν δὴ ἡσυχίην εἶχε Hdt.; in summing up, τοιαῦτα μὲν δὴ ταῦτα, Lat. haec hactenus, Aesch. inferences, Hdt., etc.; esp. to express what is unexpected, καὶ σὺ δή so then you too! Aesch.
    3.with Imperat. and Subj., ἐννοεῖτε γὰρ δή for do but consider, Xen.; so, ἄγε δή, φέρε δή, ἴθι δή, σκόπει δή, etc.
    4.γε δή to express what follows a fortiori, μετὰ ὅπλων γε δή above all with arms, Thuc.; μή τί γε δή not to mention that, Dem.
    5.καὶ δή and what is more, Il.: so, ἐς Αἴγυπτον ἀπίκετο, καὶ δὴ καὶ ἐς Σάρδις he came to Egypt, and what is more to Sardis also, Hdt.; ἰσχὺς καὶ κάλλος καὶ πλοῦτος δή and above all riches, Plat.
    b.καὶ δή is also in answers, βλέψον κάτω. Answ. καὶ δὴ βλέπω, well, I am looking, Ar. assumptions, καὶ δὴ δέδεγμαι and now suppose I have accepted, Aesch.

  15. Julian said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 7:48 pm

    Possibly off topic (I don't know enough Mandarin to be sure): my favourite words in english are 'just' and 'even'.

  16. Lupus753 said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 2:13 pm

    The idea that foreign language classes would downplay the importance of particles is hard to imagine, if only because the materials I have on learning Japanese are pretty good at explaining what particles mean and how they're used.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 3:22 pm


    Not hard to imagine. Please reread the entire post and all the comments, starting from the top.

  18. Lupus753 said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 3:45 pm

    Already did that.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    Good! So now you know.

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 8:43 pm

    The original remark by Bathrobe seems to focus on items encoding "modality" of some kind, items which in e.g. Mandarin tend on largely superficial grounds to be grouped under the fuzzy heading "particles" together with purely structural words like Y/N-question tag ma noted above — grounds like CV form, toneless-ish-ness, sentence final position, etc. This casual sense of "particle" is thus not even the same as xūcí 虛詞 ("insubstantive" i.e. "function" words), the (also amorphous) category it would first have echoed at least wrt Chinese.

    So of course Lupus753 is right re: Japanese; those so-called "particles" (and again I sense the preference is to apply this English word to particular CV items) are structural postposition-like words, rather easily compared, contrasted and otherwise dealt with in a classroom context. Whereas "modality" (productive comparisons to German, Greek noted above) is slippery and requires a lot of context and exposure. So to return to Mandarin, Y/N ma takes 10 seconds to explain in a classroom, ba… kinda not happening :D

    Also perhaps the different (actually modal) particle ma (roughly = come on now, you know, pleease, etc.) is from Taiwanese? not sure…

  21. Terry K. said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 10:08 pm

    I looked for information on particles in English to see if there's anything that would help me understand, since I don't know the languages mentioned. The one example that nicely fits with being dismissed as "meaningless", but, yet, definitely conveying something is "up" in "He ate up all his dinner.".

  22. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 10:33 pm

    He looked it up in the dictionary.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 5:26 am

    Maybe not particles per se but analogous to the two examples by Terry and Victor immediately above —

    "Head up [a team, organisation, etc.]" — a fairly recent addition to the language, I feel, perhaps longer established in <Am.E> than <Br.E>.

    "Sought out some old friends".

    "Sort out the 'fridge".

    "Take down some notes".


  24. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 5:28 am

    I clearly failed to close the <i> in example 3 of the above — please mentally re-insert the closing &/lt;>.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 5:30 am

    Bah, humbug — brain clearly failing to fully engage. I give up.

  26. Philip Anderson said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 8:32 am

    Although ’up’ is frequently used in phrasal verbs, it does sometimes seem to be just an intensifier: “to eat up” means to eat everything, and similarly with drink and burn (but also burn down), while after speak and sing it means louder. Maybe in blow up, swell up, shut up and listen up too.

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 8:33 am

    Those belong to the category usually considered phrasal verbs; yet it does seem there's a special category where the particle does not change the meaning. That's still different than the sort of particles discussed here, which are more or less grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence.

    In a way ir is not surprising that particles proliferate especially in tonal languages, as they have lesss room to use intonation for the purpose. But however it's done, it is a part of spoken language that should not be neglected, even if its usual non-presence in writing may mislead and lead to underestimating it.

    k_over_hbarc at

  28. languagehat said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 9:58 am

    Re "δή", Middle Liddell says

    The Middle Liddell (or indeed any version of Liddell) is the last place I would go to try to understand Greek particles. The previous go-to was Denniston’s The Greek Particles, but that’s over seventy years old now; the recent Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek supposedly does a good job on particles, but I haven't had the chance to examine it.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

    Well, I defer to your superior knowledge, LH, since I am a complete layman when it comes to classical Greek, but I can that I did not quote Middle Liddell entirely by chance — I sought the advice of a Byzantine-Greek palæographer (himself a native Greek speaker) and it was he who referred me to Middle Liddell when asked about "δή".

  30. Stephen L said,

    November 17, 2022 @ 6:47 pm

    German has its modal particles, 'halt','ja','schon',etc. – – these were not especially emphasised when I learned it in school or when I moved here and went to a language school in the country 5 years ago, but i guess you can pick up on how to use them pretty easily. 'halt' is my favourite of them, it's often a bit of a fatalistic 'that's just how it is' shrug , 'es is halt so'.

  31. cliff arroyo said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 2:25 am

    "German has its modal particles"

    Back when I was learning German and was a student assistant in a German class we called those flavor words (and had a German term for them to which I somehow cannot find online….a compound with some form ). They were one of my favorite parts of the language.

  32. Ellie Kesselman said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 9:20 pm

    Philip Taylor: Yes, the rising tone of ma 嗎 that ends an interrogative sentence in Mandarin Chinese is quite wonderful and intuitive for a native English language speaker!

    I wonder to what extent a rising tone, whether formalized or informal, is common across languages? If I were speaking that sentence, you could hear it.

  33. Chas Belov said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 11:37 pm

    Thank you for referencing my comment so I'm not tempted to re-post it. I absolutely love Cantonese sentence suffixes to the point of adding them to my English sentences when talking to myself.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 4:57 am

    Now you have confused me, Ellie. I was taught (and have, since then, always believed) that the interrogative 嗎 ("ma") takes the neutral tone, so if I were to ask (say) "are you hungry" (你餓嗎 / "Nǐ èr ma ?"), my final 嗎 ("ma") would be short, level, and about four and a half tones lower than the starting pitch of 餓 (èr). Have I been pronouncing it incorrectly all of these years ?

  35. Michael Watts said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 6:52 am

    The word "particle" in discussions of English does often refer to the preposition-looking part of a phrasal verb.

    But those have nothing to do with words like 啊. English has that kind of particle too, and they typically occur in sentence-initial position. "Well" and "so" are important ones. English-language studies of English grammar give these particles just as short shrift as English-language studies of foreign grammar give to foreign particles. There's no awareness.

    Philip Taylor, I am told that the Chinese can distinguish interrogative sentences by tone even if (only if?) 吗 is omitted from those sentences. It's common to write interrogative sentences with a question mark but no 吗. That would seem to support the idea that interrogative sentences may be marked by a tone, but it says nothing about whether that tone is still used when 吗 is present.

    The sentence-final nature of 吗 is useful to Chinese who want to hedge – I have seen someone declare something and then, anticipating a challenge, tack on a hesitant 吗 to the end of what had been a declaration.

    I did once remark to a Chinese person that when I saw 就 in a Chinese sentence, I usually dealt with it by pretending it wasn't there. She thought for a bit and admitted that that would usually be fairly accurate.

    As to whether particles are covered in language classes: 吗 obviously is, and no one has any trouble understanding it.

    My Chinese classes explicitly covered 吧 and 呢. They don't seem especially complex to me either. 啊 is also covered, but it's kind of hopeless to explain correct use. (I asked a pair of Chinese teenagers about 啊 once. Their explanation was "maybe you put it at the end of a sentence. Or, at the beginning." Then they indicated that sometimes it might indicate sarcasm.)

    了 is covered… separately. As far as I'm aware it is not a modal particle; it is treated as a grammatical particle (like 吗!). It is confusing to English speakers, yes. But no Chinese class is going to think it's possible to skip over 了.

    Broadening the definition of "particle" a bit, 的 is given extensive coverage in Chinese classes. As with 了, there's no other possibility.

    For something sort of in the same space of "an aspect of language governed by social relationships, the speaker's point of view, and other hazy circumstances", Chinese textbooks frequently introduce the fact that Chinese people may be referred to with the periphrastic diminutive marker 小. They do not attempt to address when you should or shouldn't do that. I have not seen one that addressed the also-common syntactic diminutive, reduplication of the name. (李宁 might be addressed affectionately and periphrastically as 小宁, or affectionately and inflectionally as 宁宁. As far as I know, these are equivalent.)

  36. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 9:48 pm

    Mand. Y/N question marker ma doesn't feature any intonational shift, a general property of so-called "neutral tone" syllables — FWIW these also feature phonetically light vowels such that ni3 ma '[is it] you?' and ni3 ma1 'your mom' are different; I tried failingly to point this out in an earlier thread re: jiu3 ba1 'bar (where liquor is served)' which phonetically is certainly not the same as jiu3 ba ('alcohol I guess' or sth).

    Contrast Japanese sentence-final interrogative ka which seems to consistently feature intonational rise?

    Also Chinese vs. Japanese — it is true that we often hear Mandarin remarks such as e.g. hao3 chi1? 'it's tasty?' with special intonational properties (phonetically elevated tones) but no structural interrogative, but these don't work as Y/N questions proper; i.e., given no prior context I can't say walk up to your table and ask about your food with hao3 chi1? (e.g. "请问,好吃?" is furiner-speak :D ). Whereas my impression was that Japanese informal say oishii? with questioning intonation can really mean "is it tasty?" Or maybe this is wrong…

    Re: Michael Watts' comments on Mand. "conjunctive adverb" (?) jiu4, it is funny, of course this won't yield any direct equivalent in most translations into English, and native speakers will not generally be able to put their finger on how/why it is meaningful, and yet it is of massively high frequency, some equivalent seems to exist across all (?) Chinese languages, and failing to use it properly is an awesome way to sound awkward. So somehow it must be terrifically meaningful :D

  37. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 10:14 pm

    ^ Although upon reflection S. Min. t(i)o7, used much like but apparently not cognate with Mand. jiu4, may be a relatively recent innovation on the basis of Mandarin; I don't *think* it occurs in the early Lomaji literature.. could have begun as a phonetic reduction of tio[glottal stop]8?

  38. PeterL said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 6:22 pm

    "I wonder if that sort of insertion [of particles from one language into another] is common among toddlers elsewhere."

    Adults also. When I first lived in Osaka in 1977, many of the long-term foreign residents who spoke Japanese would often add some Japanese sentence-ending "particles" or words to the end of English sentences, such as "deshō" (I suppose, I guess, etc), "nē" (isn't it), "ka na" (isn't it?), or "yo" (mild emphasis). I presumed that this was due to the Japanese particles/phrases being easier to tack on to the end of a sentence than the English equivalents. (Many of the Japanese sentence ending particles/phrases weren't used this way, such as "ka" (question), "ja nai" (isn't), "ka mo [shirenai]" (perhaps) … I don't have a theory as to why some were used and some not)

  39. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 6:57 pm

    Indeed so. Brian Chandler, who taught me the game of Go maybe fifty years ago, and who studied Japanese in London, frequently tacked desu onto the end of otherwise English statements.

  40. Chas Belov said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 9:31 pm

    @Michael Watts: My Cantonese classes at City College of San Francisco, with the first two semesters based on the books and audio from the Foreign Service Institute, included quite a few particles. The materials discussed particle usage fairly extensively, going so far as to note that a male speaker following a yes-no question (verb 唔verb) with the interrogative particle 呢 (ne) would be considered effeminate.

    That said, there wasn't a chapter specifically devoted to particles; they were simply dropped into various conversations and discussed individually as they were introduced, nor were there any exercises so far as I can recall (after 30 years) that asked us to choose an appropriate particle to end a sentence with.

    I note both Cantonese and Mandarin are listed in the super-hard-for-English-speakers category, scheduled for 88 weeks or 2200 hours of class time.

  41. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 5:34 am

    "both Cantonese and Mandarin are listed in the super-hard-for-English-speakers category, scheduled for 88 weeks or 2200 hours of class time" — is that the time required to achieve oral/aural fluency, Chas, the time to acquire fluency in reading and writing, or both combined ? In my (very limited) experience, acquiring a reasonable level of fluency in oral/aural Mandarin should not be super-hard, if one is fortunate enough to possess the facility to recognise and reproduce tones relatively easily. Of my Mandarin class of 14, seven dropped out in the first few weeks when they realised that they lacked this facility, whilst the rest of us carried on for a further two or three years (one hour a week, so a total of around 100 to 150 hours). At the end of that time none of us would have claimed to be fluent, but it certainly gave those of us fortunate enough to subsequently visit China the confidence to attempt conversation in Mandarin.

  42. Chas Belov said,

    November 26, 2022 @ 5:04 pm

    @Philip Taylor: I don't know what their criteria are.

    Actually, I think of "actually" at the beginning of a correction as being a particle, serving to make the correction more polite. That said, "actually" in that position has a Cantonese equivalent, "keih sāt", which I believe would not be considered a particle.

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