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Keith Tse


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Cantonese 得: another case of polysemy

In a previous blog, I analysed the uses of Cantonese 啱 and argued that it was polysemous, especially in relation to its Mandarin counterparts. Another such word is Cantonese 得, which also has multiple meanings. As a verbal suffix, V-得 is a modal construction which denotes permission  e.g.

我      做-得

ngoh jo-dak

I        do-DAK

‘I can (i.e. allowed) do.’

There is no Mandarin affixal equivalent and periphrasis would have to be used instead, namely 可以+V:

我  可以  做

wo keyi zuo

I    can    do

‘I can (allowed) do.’

This construction form minimal pairs with another verbal suffix, namely V-到, which denotes ability rather than permission e.g.

我      做-到

ngoh jo-do

I        do-DO

‘I can (i.e. capable) do.’

There is a Mandarin affixal equivalent and it is V-得到:

我   做-得到

wo zuo-dedao

I     do-DEDAO

‘I can (capable) do.’

However, Cantonese V-得 has several usages that are totally idiosyncratic to the dialect, namely its providing the meaning ‘only’ to the argument(s) of the verb e.g.

凈係         走得       三       個              人

(jinghai) jau-dak saam goh           yan

(only)      go-DAK three classifier people

‘Only three people go.’

The Mandarin equivalent would have to omit the affix altogether and obligatorify the adverb ‘only’:

只     走    三      個              人

zhi   zou san    ge              ren

only go   three classifier people

‘Only three people go.’

The distribution of scope of V-得 over the argument(s) of the verb obeys the usual pattern of argument selection i.e. if the verb is intransitive, the scope is over the subject, and if the verb is transitive, the scope is over the object(s) e.g.

我      (凈係)    睇-得          三       半             書

ngoh jinghai tai-dak      saam boon        shue

I        only       read-DAK three classifier book

‘I only read three books.’

Likewise, the Mandarin equivalent would have to be affixless with an obligatory adverb ‘only’:

我   只     看     三       半              書

wo zhi   kan   san    ben           shu

I     only read three classifier book

‘I only read three books.’

Cantonese 得 can also be used on its own as an existential/possessive verb with an inherent meaning of ‘only’ imposed on its argument (‘only have’), which has to be paraphrased in Mandarin as 只有 ‘only have’ e.g.

我      得               五     蚊

ngoh dak            ng    man

I         only.have five dollar

‘I only have five dollars.’

我   只    有      五     塊              錢

wo zhi   you   wu  kuai          qian

I     only have five classifier money

‘I only have five dollars.’

Furthermore, Cantonese 得 can also be used on its own either as an adjective or an interjection meaning ‘OK’, in which uses it is rendered in Mandarin as 可以/行 e.g.





我      呢   個              提議          得   唔           得    呀?

ngoh ni   goh           taiyi         dak ng          dak ah

I        this classifier proposal OK  negator OK  INTERROGATIVE.PARTICLE

‘Is my proposal OK?’

我  這   個               提議          可  不            可以?

wo zhe ge             tiyi            ke  bu           keyi

I     this classifier proposal OK negator OK

‘Is my proposal OK?’

Cantonese 得 is therefore another hugely complex word that is hard to define, since it is multi-categorial (verbal affix, adjective, interjection) as well as polysemous (though admittedly its various uses and meanings are related and must go back to a common historical source). There is therefore no simple one-to-one mapping between morphemes in Chinese dialects.

#grammar #linguistics #eastasia #dialect #chinese

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© Keith Tse (2015-) 

London, United Kingdom