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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 plural 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.
- 1 Verbal aspect
- 2 Final particles
- 3 Pronouns
- 4 Copula ("to be")
- 5 Negations
- 6 Questions
- 7 Demonstratives
- 8 Possessives
- 9 Differences from Mandarin grammar
- 10 See also
- 11 References
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.
|Perfective||zo2 (咗)||To emphasise a completed activity the result of which still applies to the present situation||我I 喺at/in 香港Hong Kong 住咗live-PERF 一one 年year = I have been living in Hong Kong for a year (and still live here)|
|Experiential||gwo3 (過)||To emphasise an activity completed in the indeterminate past which no longer applies to the present situation||我I 喺at/in 香港Hong Kong 住過live-EXPR 一one 年year = I lived in Hong Kong for a year (but am now elsewhere)|
|Progressive||gan2 (緊)||To emphasise a dynamic activity which may undergo a change of state||我I 著緊wear-PROG 衫clothes = I am putting on clothes|
|Durative||zyu6 (住)||To emphasise a continuous activity without a change of state||我I 著住wear-DUR 衫clothes = I am wearing clothes|
|Delimitative||haa5 (吓)||To emphasise an activity of brief duration||等Let 我me 著吓wear-DEL = Let me wear it for a while|
|Habitual||hoi1 (開)||To emphasise an activity protracted over a period of time to the point that it has become characteristic or habitual||我I 做開do-HAB 鐘點part-time 嘅SFP = I normally work part-time|
|Inchoative||hei2-soeng5-lai4 (起上嚟)||To emphasise the beginning of an activity||個CL 孲𤘅baby 突然之間suddenly 喊起上嚟cry-INCH = the baby suddenly began crying|
|Continuative||lok6-heoi3 (落去)||To emphasise the continuation of an activity||你you唔NEG 使need 再again 講落去speak-CONT 喇SFP = You don't have to go on speaking|
Abbreviations: CL = classifier; SFP = sentence-final particle
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.
|呀||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.|
|嘅||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)|
|㗎||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)|
|啦||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].|
|囉||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.|
|啫||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 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.
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):
|Pronoun||Pronunciation (in Jyutping)||Grammatical Classification||English equivalent|
|我||ngo5||1st person singular||I / me|
|你||nei5||2nd person singular||you (singular)|
|佢||keoi5||3rd person singular||he / she / it|
|我哋||ngo5 dei6||1st person plural||we / us|
|你哋||nei5 dei6||2nd person plural||you (plural)|
|佢哋||keoi5 dei6||3rd person plural||they / Them|
Copula ("to be")
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".
- 尋日係中秋節 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 if often found along with it.
- 佢係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 and 响 hoeng2, which are collectively known as the locatives or sometimes coverbs in Chinese linguistics, are used to express "to be at":
- 我而家喺圖書館 ngo5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 tou4 syu1 gun2 "I am at the library now"
(Here 而家 ji4 gaa1 means "now".)
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:
- 我食得花生 ngo5 sik6 dak1 faa1 sang1 "I can eat peanuts"
(Where 食 sik6 is the verb "to eat")
- 我唔食得花生 ngo5 m4 sik6 dak1 faa1 sang1 "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.
- 見 gin3 "see" 唔見 m4 gin3 "lose"
- 記得 gei3 dak1 "remember" 唔記得 m4 gei3 dak1 "forget"
- 錯 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 are not formed by changing the word order as in English. Sentence final particles and certain interrogative constructions are used instead.
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
|Transcription:||nei5||sik1||gong2||Gwong2 dung1 waa2||nei5||sik1 m4 sik1||gong2||Gwong2 dung1 waa2|
|Gloss:||you||know||speak||Cantonese||you||know not know||speak||Cantonese|
|Translation:||You know to speak Cantonese.||Do you speak Cantonese?|
- As the negative form of 有 is 冇, the corresponding yes-no question uses the form 有冇:
|Transcription:||jau5||hung4 luk6 dang1||jau5 mou5||hung4 luk6 dang1|
|Translation:||There is a traffic 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.
|Transcription:||keoi5||hai6||gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2||keoi5||hai6 mai6||gaa1 naa4 daai6 jan4*2|
|Translation:||(S)he is a Canadian.||Is (s)he a Canadian?|
- With multisyllable verbs, only the first syllable is repeated:
|Transcription:||nei5||zung1 ji3||nin4 gou1||nei5||zung1 m4 zung1 ji3||nin4 gou1|
|Translation:||You like new-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):
|你||去過||德國.||你||去過||德國||未?||(the word 去過 after 未 is omitted to avoid repetition.)|
|Transcription:||nei5||heoi3 gwo3||Dak1 gwok3||nei5||heoi3 gwo3||Dak1 gwok3||mei6*2||(tone changes to indicate a question.)|
|Translation:||You have ever been to Germany.||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.
- The interrogative words are as follows:
|乜(嘢) / 咩||mat1 (je5) / me1e5||what|
|邊度 / 邊處||bin1 dou6 / bin1 syu3||where|
|點(樣)||dim2 (joeng6*2)||how (in what manner)|
|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.
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"
- 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!".
- 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
The following Cantonese grammatical points are not found in Mandarin Chinese.
- 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.
- 畀嗰本書我 bei2 go2 bun2 syu1 ngo5 "Give the book to me."
- 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)學生 (di1) hok6 saang1.
- There are words in Mandarin which require the suffixes 子 -zi or 頭 -tou, but they are normally optional in Cantonese, e.g. 鞋子 xiézi "shoe" and 石頭 shítou "rock" can simply be 鞋 haai4 and 石 sek6 in Cantonese.
- Classifiers can be used instead of the possessive 嘅 ge3 to indicate possession of a single object. Classifiers cannot be used in this way in Mandarin.
- 佢本書 keoi5 bun2 syu1 "his book" (本 bun2 is the classifier)
- Classifiers in both Cantonese and Mandarin can serve to individualize a noun, giving it a singular meaning. However, such a construction in Mandarin will be of indefinite reference, unless a demonstrative (e.g. 这 zhè "this") or the universal quantifier (每 měi "every") is present. Furthermore, there's great limitations on using this construction in subject position. In Cantonese, these restrictions do not exist.
- 本書唔見咗 bun2 syu1 m4 gin3 zo2 "The book is lost," and it cannot be interpreted as "the books".
- 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.
- 佢高過我 keoi5 gou1 gwo3 ngo5 "He is taller than me."
- In Standard Mandarin, comparison is marked by adding 比 bǐ, which serves as an adverbial, leaving the adjective itself unchanged. The sentence above is translated 他比我高 tā bǐ wǒ gāo in Mandarin.
- Alternatively the classifier 啲 di1 alone (without the numeral 一) can be used use as the sole complement of the verbal adjective.
- 佢高啲 keoi5 gou1 di1 "He is taller."
- Cantonese has a dedicated habitual aspect marker, 開 hoi1, with no similar counterpart in Mandarin.
- 我住開香港 ngo5 zyu6 hoi1 Hoeng1 Gong2 "I've been living in Hong Kong".
- 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.
- 筷子畀人用咗 faai3 zi2 bei2 jan4 jung6 zo2 "the chopsticks have been used" (and not *筷子畀用咗 *faai3 zi2 bei2 jung6 zo2).
- It is possible to stack various of such particles one after the other, while Mandarin is restricted to sentence-final 了 and one particle.
- 你食咗啦吓? nei5 sik6 zo2 laa3 haa5 "You already ate, right?"
- 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, 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.