Cantonese grammar

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Cantonese is an analytic language in which the arrangement of words in a sentence is important to its meaning. A basic sentence is in the form of SVO, i.e. a subject is followed by a verb then by an object, though this order is often violated because Cantonese is a topic-prominent language. Unlike synthetic languages, seldom do words indicate time, gender and number by inflection. Instead, these concepts are expressed through adverbs, aspect markers, and particles, or are deduced from the context. Different particles are added to a sentence to further specify its status or intonation.

A verb itself indicates no tense. The time can be explicitly shown with time-indicating adverbs. Certain exceptions exist, however, according to the pragmatic interpretation of a verb's meaning. Additionally, an optional aspect particle can be appended to a verb to indicate the state of an event. Appending interrogative or exclamative particles to a sentence turns a sentence into a question or shows the attitudes of the speaker.

Verbal aspect[edit]

In contrast to many European languages, Cantonese verbs are marked for aspect rather than tense—that is, whether an event has begun, is ongoing, or has been completed. Tense—where an event occurs within time, i.e. past, present, future—is specified through the use of time adverbs. In addition, verbal complements may convey aspectual distinctions, indicating whether an event is just beginning, is continuing, or at completion, and also the effect of the verb on its object(s).

Aspect particles are treated as suffixes bound to the verb.

Aspect Marker Usage Example
Perfective

zo2

zo2

To emphasise a completed activity the result of which still applies to the present situation

ngo5

I

hai2

at/in

香港

hoeng1 gong2

Hong Kong

住咗

zyu6 zo2

live-PFV

jat1

one

nin4

year

我 喺 香港 住咗 一 年

ngo5 hai2 {hoeng1 gong2} {zyu6 zo2} jat1 nin4

I at/in {Hong Kong} live-PFV one year

I have been living in Hong Kong for a year (and still live here)

Experiential

gwo3

gwo3

To emphasise an activity completed in the indeterminate past which no longer applies to the present situation

ngo5

I

hai2

at/in

香港

hoeng1 gong2

Hong Kong

住過

zyu6gwo3

live-EXP

jat1

one

nin4

year

我 喺 香港 住過 一 年

ngo5 hai2 {hoeng1 gong2} {zyu6gwo3} jat1 nin4

I at/in {Hong Kong} live-EXP one year

I lived in Hong Kong for a year (but am now elsewhere)

Progressive

gan2

gan2

To emphasise a dynamic activity which may undergo a change of state

ngo5

I

著緊

zoek3 gan2

wear-PROG

saam1

clothes

我 著緊 衫

ngo5 {zoek3 gan2} saam1

I wear-PROG clothes

I am putting on clothes

Durative

zyu6

zyu6

To emphasise a continuous activity without a change of state

ngo5

I

著住

zoek3 zyu6

wear-DUR

saam1

clothes

我 著住 衫

ngo5 {zoek3 zyu6} saam1

I wear-DUR clothes

I am wearing clothes

Delimitative

haa5

haa5

To emphasise an activity of brief duration

dang2

Let

ngo5

me

著吓

zoek3 haa5

wear-DEL

等 我 著吓

dang2 ngo5 {zoek3 haa5}

Let me wear-DEL

Let me wear it for a while

Habitual

hoi1

hoi1

To emphasise an activity protracted over a period of time to the point that it has become characteristic or habitual

ngo5

I

做開

zou6 hoi1

do-HAB

鐘點

zung1 dim2

part-time

ge3

SFP

我 做開 鐘點 嘅

ngo5 {zou6 hoi1} {zung1 dim2} ge3

I do-HAB part-time SFP

I normally work part-time

Inchoative

hei2

soeng5

lai4

起 上 嚟

hei2 soeng5 lai4

To emphasise the beginning of an activity

go3

CL

阿咇

aa3 bit6

baby

突然之間

dat6 jin4 zi1 gaan1

suddenly

喊起上嚟

haam3 hei2 soeng5 lai4

cry-INCH

個 阿咇 突然之間 喊起上嚟

go3 {aa3 bit6} {dat6 jin4 zi1 gaan1} {haam3 hei2 soeng5 lai4}

CL baby suddenly cry-INCH

the baby suddenly began crying

Continuative

落 去

lok6 heoi3

To emphasise the continuation of an activity

nei5

you

m4

NEG

使

si2/sai2

need

zoi3

again

講落去

gong2 lok6 heoi3

speak-CONT

laa3

SFP

你 唔 使 再 講落去 喇

nei5 m4 si2/sai2 zoi3 {gong2 lok6 heoi3} laa3

you NEG need again speak-CONT SFP

You don't have to go on speaking

Final particles[edit]

Cantonese has many final particles to change the moods or sometimes even the meaning of an utterance. There are also many combinations of these final particles.

Particle Jyutping Usage Example
aa3 Used in neutral questions. Also used to soften the tone of affirmative statements so they don't sound as abrupt. 你去邊處呀? Where are you going? 我返屋企呀 I'm going home.
ge3 Used in assertions where something is emphasized (usually 係 hai6 is in front of what is being emphasized). Pronouncing it as ge2 adds a sense of puzzlement about the situation. This is equivalent to the Mandarin/written Chinese 的 dik1. 我係今日返屋企嘅 I'm going home today. (the "today" is emphasized)
gaa3 Contraction of the combination 嘅呀 ge3 aa3. 你係幾時返來㗎? When are you coming back? (the "when" is emphasized)
laa1 Used in requests and imperatives. This is one particle where leaving it out could make the sentence sound rude. This is equivalent to the Mandarin/written Chinese sentence final 吧 baa6. 俾我啦 Give it to me [please].
lo1 Indicates a suggestion or conclusion that should be obvious (usually occurs with 咪 mai6). 我冇車咪返唔到屋企囉 Without a car, [then of course] I am unable to go home.
ze1 Can be used to mean "only" or "that's all," or used to play down the significance of the situation. 佢返一日啫 He's only coming back for one day.

There are more final particles than those shown above, such as 嘞 laak3, 咯 lo3, 吓 haa2, 呵 ho2, 吖 aa4, 㗎 gaa4, 喎 wo5, 啩 gwaa3, 噃 bo3, 喎 wo3, 喳 za4 and 咩 me1.

Final particles may sometimes combine to convey multiple moods. There are unwritten rules about which particles can be combined and in what order they occur which are probably too complicated to explain here. However, one good rule of thumb is that 嘅 ge3 always comes before the other particles. In addition, the particles used in questions (呀 aa3, 咩 me1, 呢 ne1, 嗎 maa3, etc.) always come last.

Pronouns[edit]

Cantonese uses the following pronouns, which like in many other Sinitic languages, function as both nominative (English: I, he, we) and accusative (me, him, us):

singular plural
1st person

ngo5

ngo5

I / me

ngo5

dei6

我 哋

ngo5 dei6

we / us

2nd person

nei5

nei5

you (singular)

nei5

dei6

你 哋

nei5 dei6

you (plural)

3rd person

佢/姖

keoi5

佢/姖

keoi5

he / she / it

佢/姖

keoi5

dei6

佢/姖 哋

keoi5 dei6

they / them

Copula ("to be")[edit]

States and qualities are generally expressed using stative verbs that do not require the verb "to be". For example, to say "I am hungry", one would say 我肚餓 ngo5 tou5 ngo6 (literally: I stomach hungry).

With noun complements, the verb 係 hai6 serves as the verb "to be".

ex:

cam4

jat6

hai6

zung1

cau1

節。

zit3

尋 日 中 秋 節。

cam4 jat6 hai6 zung1 cau1 zit3

Yesterday was [the] Mid-Autumn festival

Another use of 係 is in cleft constructions for emphasis, much like the English construction "It's ... that ...". The sentence particle 嘅 ge3 is often found along with it.

ex:

keoi5

hai6

jyun4

cyun4

m4

sik1

gong2

Gwong2

dung1

waa6*2

嘅。

ge

完 全 唔 識 講 廣 東 話 嘅。

keoi5 hai6 jyun4 cyun4 m4 sik1 gong2 Gwong2 dung1 waa6*2 ge

"(It is the case that) s/he doesn't know Cantonese at all."

To indicate location, the words 喺 hai2 (a "lazy" variation is 响 hoeng2) which are collectively known as the locatives or sometimes coverbs in Chinese linguistics, are used to express "to be at":

ex:

ngo5

ji4

gaa1

hai2

tou4

syu1

館。

gun2

我 而 家 圖 書 館。

ngo5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 tou4 syu1 gun2

I am at the library now

(Here 而家 ji4 gaa1 means "now".)

Negations[edit]

Many negation words start with the sound m- in Cantonese; for example, 唔 m4 "not", 冇 mou5 "to not have (done sth)", 未 mei6 "not yet". Verbs are negated by adding the character 唔 m4 in front of it. For example:

ngo5

1SG

sik6

to eat

dak1

can

花生

faa1 sang1

peanut

我 食 得 花生

ngo5 sik6 dak1 {faa1 sang1}

1SG {to eat} can peanut

"I can eat peanuts"

ngo5

1SG

m4

NEG

sik6

to eat

dak1

can

花生

faa1 sang

peanut

食 得 花生

ngo5 m4 sik6 dak1 {faa1 sang}

1SG NEG {to eat} can peanut

"I can't eat peanuts"

The exception is the word 有 jau5 'to have', which turns into 冇 mou5 'to not have' without the use of 唔 m4.

The negative imperative is formed by prefixing 唔好 m4 hou2 (also pronounced mou2) or 咪 mai5 in front of the verb:

唔好睇戲 m4 hou2 tai2 hei3 "Don't watch movies"
咪睇戲 mai5 tai2 hei3 "Don't watch movies"

In contrast to the examples of sentential negation above where the entire sentence is negated, 唔 m4 can be used lexically to negate a single word. The negated word often differs slightly in meaning from the original word; that is, this lexcial negation is a kind of derivation. Evidence for this is that they can be used with the perfective aspect particle 咗 zo2, which is not possible with sententially negated verbs.

gin3 "see" 唔見 m4 gin3 "lose"
記得 gei3 dak1 "remember" 唔記得 m4 gei3 dak1 "forget"
co3 "wrong" 唔錯 m4 co3 'pretty good; not bad' / 冇錯 mou5 co3 "right"
我唔見咗我本書 ngo5 m4 gin3 zo2 ngo5 bun2 syu1 "I lost my book"

is perfectly acceptable, but

'*'我唔食咗嘢 ngo5 m4 sik6 zo2 je5 "I did not eat"

is ungrammatical. (The correct expression should be 我冇食嘢 ngo5 mou5 sik6 je5: 我(I)冇(did not)食(eat)嘢(something/anything), but actually with an emphasis on not doing an action, as it is the negation of 我有食嘢 ngo5 yau5 sik6 je5: 我(I)有(did)食(eat)嘢(something/anything).)

Questions[edit]

Questions are not formed by changing the word order as in English. Sentence final particles and certain interrogative constructions are used instead.

Yes-no questions[edit]

There are two ways to form a yes-no questions. One way is by the use of final particle and/or intonation alone. The question particle 呀 aa4 indicates surprise or disapproval. It tends to presuppose a positive answer.

  • 吓? 你下個禮拜放假呀? Haa2? Nei5 haa6 go3 lai5 baai3 fong3 gaa3 aa4? Translation: You are going on leave next week!? (The questioner is surprised that you are going on leave, or doesn't agree that you should.)

The particle 咩 me1 is exclusively interrogative, indicating surprise and used to check the truth of an unexpected state of affairs.

  • 乜你唔知嘅咩? Mat1 nei5 m4 zi1 ge3 me1? Translation: (You mean) you don't know?

A question may be indicated by a high rising intonation alone at the end of a question. (This intonation can be considered a nonsyllablic final particle indicating a question.) This intonation pattern usually modifies or exaggerates the basic tone of the last syllable. This type of question is used especially for echo, where the questioner repeats a statement out of surprise.

  • 「我唔見咗條鎖匙」「咩話?你唔見咗條鎖匙?」 "ngo5 m4 gin3 zo2 tiu4 so2 si4" "me1e5 waa6? nei5 m4 gin3 zo2 tiu4 so2 si4" ("I lost the key." "What? You lost the key?") (The last syllable of 鎖匙 so2 si4 "key" is pronounced longer, first finishing the low falling tone, then rising at the end like the high rising tone.)

The other way to form yes-no questions uses a special construction in which the head of the predicate, say X, is replaced by X-not-X. Final particles may be used in addition.

  • For example

nei5

you

sik1

know

gong2

speak

廣東話

Gwong2 dung1 waa2

Cantonese

你 識 講 廣東話

nei5 sik1 gong2 {Gwong2 dung1 waa2}

you know speak Cantonese

You know to speak Cantonese.

nei5

you

識唔識

sik1 m4 sik1

know not know

gong2

speak

廣東話?

Gwong2 dung1 waa2

Cantonese

你 識唔識 講 廣東話?

nei5 {sik1 m4 sik1} gong2 {Gwong2 dung1 waa2}

you {know not know} speak Cantonese

Do you speak Cantonese?

  • As the negative form of 有 is 冇, the corresponding yes-no question uses the form 有冇:

jau5

have

紅綠燈.

hung4 luk6 dang1

red-green-light

有 紅綠燈.

jau5 {hung4 luk6 dang1}

have red-green-light

There is a traffic light.

有冇

jau5 mou5

have not have

紅綠燈?

hung4 luk6 dang1

red-green-light

有冇 紅綠燈?

{jau5 mou5} {hung4 luk6 dang1}

{have not have} red-green-light

Is there a traffic light?

  • As for 係 hai6 ("to be"), the yes-no question often uses the contraction 係咪 hai6 mai6 (note that 咪 mai6 is not the prohibitive 咪 mai2) instead of 係唔係 hai6 m4 hai6.

keoi5

(s)he

hai6

is

加拿大人.

gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2

Canada-man

佢 係 加拿大人.

keoi5 hai6 {gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2}

(s)he is Canada-man

(S)he is a Canadian

keoi5

(s)he

係咪

hai6 mai6

is isn't

加拿大人?

gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2

Canada-person

佢 係咪 加拿大人?

keoi5 {hai6 mai6} {gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2}

(s)he {is isn't} Canada-person

Is (s)he a Canadian?

  • With multisyllable verbs, only the first syllable is repeated:

nei5

you

鍾意

zung1 ji3

like

年糕.

nin4 gou1

year-cake

你 鍾意 年糕.

nei5 {zung1 ji3} {nin4 gou1}

you like year-cake

You like new-year cake

nei5

you

鍾唔鍾意

zung1 m4 zung1 ji3

like not like

年糕?

nin4 gou1

year-cake

你 鍾唔鍾意 年糕?

nei5 {zung1 m4 zung1 ji3} {nin4 gou1}

you {like not like} year-cake

Do you like new-year cake?

  • A special case is when a question asking whether something has occurred is formed. In a negative sentence, the adverb 未 mei6 should precede the verb to indicate that the event has not yet occurred. In yes-no questions, however, 未 appears at the end of the question (but before the final particle, if exists):

nei5

you

去過

heoi3 gwo3

go-EXP

德國.

Dak1 gwok3

Germany

你 去過 德國.

nei5 {heoi3 gwo3} {Dak1 gwok3}

you go-EXP Germany

You have ever been to Germany

nei5

you

去過

heoi3 gwo3

go-EXP

德國

Dak1 gwok3

Germany

未?

mei6*2

not-yet

(the word 去過 after 未 is omitted to avoid repetition.)

(tone changes to indicate a question.)

 

你 去過 德國 未?

nei5 {heoi3 gwo3} {Dak1 gwok3} mei6*2

you go-EXP Germany not-yet

Have you ever been to Germany?

This form of yes-no questions looks less similar to the "X-not-X" type, but it is still considered in this type, because the "X" after "not" is omitted. For example, the example question above can be expanded as 你去過德國未去過? nei5 heoi3 gwo3 Dak1 gwok3 mei6 heoi3 gwo3.

A syntax of yes-no question in the form "X-not-X" is actually a contraction of a combination of syntax of an affirmative sentence and the syntax of a negative sentence.

Interrogative words[edit]

  • The interrogative words are as follows:
Interrogative Pronunciation English equivalent
邊個 bin1 go3 who
乜(嘢) / 咩 mat1 (je5) / me1e5 what
邊度 / 邊處 bin1 dou6 / bin1 syu3 where
幾時 gei2 si4 when
點解 dim2 gaai2 why
dim2 how about
點(樣) dim2 (joeng6*2) how (in what manner)
gei2 how (adjective)
幾多 gei2 do1 how many/much

Questions use exactly the same word order as in statements. For example: 你係邊個? nei5 hai6 bin1 go3 "who are you?" (literally "you are who"), 你幾時去邊度見邊個呀? nei5 gei2 si4 heoi3 bin1 dou6 gin3 bin1 go aa3 "When will you go? Where will you go and who will you meet?" (literally "you when go where meet who"). Note that more than one interrogative words can be put in a single sentence at a same time.

Demonstratives[edit]

The proximal demonstrative ("this"), is 呢 ni1 / nei1, or more frequently in fast speech, 依 ji1 (+ measure word). For example:

呢本書 ni1/nei1 bun2 syu1 "this book"
依本書 ji1 bun2 syu1 "this book"

The distal demonstrative ("that") is 嗰 go2. For example:

嗰本書 go2 bun2 syu1 "that book"

Between the demonstrative and its noun, a certain word to link them must be used, whether a corresponding classifier for the noun for singular count nouns or 啲 di1 for plural count nouns and mass nouns:

呢架車 ni1/nei1 gaa3 ce1 "this car"
呢啲車 ni1/nei1 di1 ce1 "these cars"
嗰啲水 go2 di1 seoi2 "that water"

Possessives[edit]

  • For singular nouns, the word 嘅 ge3 is roughly equivalent to English " 's":
爸爸嘅屋企 baa1*4 baa1 ge3 nguk1 kei2 "father's house"
  • Plural nouns take 啲 di1:
你啲動物 nei5 di1 dung6 mat6 "your animals"

N.B.: 啲 di1 is a very versatile word in Cantonese, besides pluralizing certain phrases, it can also mean "a little/few", e.g. 一啲 jat1 di1 "a little", or 早啲 zou2 di1 "earlier" (literally: early + (intensifier)).

  • Possessive pronouns (i.e. "mine", "his", "hers") are formed by adding 嘅 ge3 after the pronoun.
係佢嘅呀! hai6 keoi2 ge3 aa3 "It's his!"
(呀 aa3 is a particle used to end affirmative statements)

However, in the case where there's an implied plural noun, one does not say:

*係佢啲呀! hai6 keoi5 di1 aa3 "It's his!".

For example:

呢啲書係邊個嘅呀? ni1/nei1 di1 syu1 hai6 bin1 go3 ge3 aa3 "Whose books are these?"
係佢嘅呀! hai6 keoi5 ge3 aa3 "It's his! [referring to his books]"

嘅呀 ge3 aa3 is usually shortened in speech into one syllable, 㗎/嘎 gaa3.

  • One could also say:
係佢啲書嚟㗎! hai6 keoi5 di1 syu1 lei4 gaa3 "It's his books!"

Both of these are generic possessives.

Differences from Mandarin grammar[edit]

The following Cantonese grammatical points are not found in Mandarin Chinese.

Word order[edit]

The direct object precedes the indirect object when using the verb 畀 bei2 "to give". In Mandarin verbs of giving, an indirect object precedes a direct object.

bei2

give

go2

this

bun2

CL

syu1

book

ngo5

1SG

畀 嗰 本 書 我

bei2 go2 bun2 syu1 ngo5

give this CL book 1SG

"Give the book to me."

Morphology[edit]

The suffix used for the plural of pronouns, 哋 dei6, cannot associate with human nouns, unlike its similar Mandarin counterpart 們 -men. Mandarin 學生們 xuéshengmen "the students" would be rendered in Cantonese as:

(啲)

(di1)

(CL)

學生

hok6 saang1

students

(啲) 學生

(di1) {hok6 saang1}

(CL) students

"(the) students"

There are words in Mandarin which often require the suffixes 子 -zi or 頭 -tou, but they are normally optional in Cantonese, e.g. Mandarin 鞋子 xiézi "shoe" and 石頭 shítou "rock" can be 鞋 haai4 and 石 sek6 in Cantonese.

Classifiers[edit]

Classifiers can be used instead of the possessive 嘅 ge3 to indicate possession of a single object. Classifiers cannot be used this way in Mandarin.

keoi5

3SG

bun2

CL

syu1

book

佢 本 書

keoi5 bun2 syu1

3SG CL book

"his book"

Classifiers in both Cantonese and Mandarin can serve to individualize a noun, giving it a singular meaning (or plural in the case 啲 di1). However, such a construction in Mandarin will be of indefinite reference, unless a demonstrative (e.g. 這 zhè "this") or the universal quantifier (每 měi "every") is present. Furthermore, there's great limitations on using this construction in subject position in Mandarin. In Cantonese, these restrictions do not exist.

gaa3

CL

che1

car

taat3

start

m4

not

zoek6

burn

架 車 撻 唔 著

gaa3 che1 taat3 m4 zoek6

CL car start not burn

"The car won't start," and it cannot be interpreted as "the cars".

Comparison[edit]

Adjective comparison in Cantonese is formed by adding the marker 過 gwo3 after an adjective. The adjective-marker construction serves as a transitive verb which takes the standard of comparison as an object.

keoi5

3SG

gou1

tall

gwo3

COMP

ngo5

1SG

佢 高 過 我

keoi5 gou1 gwo3 ngo5

3SG tall COMP 1SG

"He is taller than me."

In Standard Mandarin, comparison is marked by adding 比 , which serves in an adverbial phrase, leaving the adjective itself unchanged. The sentence above is translated into Mandarin as:

3SG

compare_to

1SG

gāo

tall

他 比 我 高

tā bǐ wǒ gāo

3SG compare_to 1SG tall

"He is taller than me."

Alternatively the plural marker 啲 di1 alone (without the numeral 一 yat1) can be used use as the sole complement of the verbal adjective.

keoi5

3SG

gou1

tall

di1

COMP

佢 高 啲

keoi5 gou1 di1

3SG tall COMP

"He is taller."

Aspect markers[edit]

Cantonese has a dedicated habitual aspect marker, 開 hoi1, with no similar counterpart in Mandarin.

ngo5

1SG

zyu6

live

hoi1

HAB

香港

Hoeng1 Gong2

Hong Kong

我 住 開 香港

ngo5 zyu6 hoi1 {Hoeng1 Gong2}

1SG live HAB {Hong Kong}

"I've been living in Hong Kong."

Passives[edit]

In Cantonese, there must always be an agent in a passive, while in Mandarin this isn't the case. If there's no known or specific agent, Cantonese must at least use 人 jan4 "someone" as a dummy agent.

筷 子

faai3 zi2

chopsticks

bei2

by

jan4

person

jung6

use

zo2

PRF

{筷 子} 畀 用 咗

{faai3 zi2} bei2 jan4 jung6 zo2

chopsticks by person use PRF

"the chopsticks have been used" (and not *筷子畀用咗 *faai3 zi2 bei2 jung6 zo2)

Sentence particles[edit]

It is possible to stack various of such particles one after the other, while Mandarin is restricted to sentence-final 了 and one particle.

nei5

2SG

sik6

eat

zo2

PRF

laa3

COS

吓?

haa5

Q

你 食 咗 吓?

nei5 sik6 zo2 laa3 haa5

2SG eat PRF COS Q

"You already ate, right?"

Pronouns[edit]

There is no gender distinction between the third person singulars of he, she and it in spoken or written Cantonese; however in Mandarin, male and female are distinguished with two different characters, 他 for male and 她 for female,[1] as well as 它 for inanimate objects (including plants), 牠 for (non-human) animals, and 祂 for god(s), which all have the same pronunciation.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Matthews, Stephen; Yip, Virginia (2011). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 92. ISBN 9780415471312.