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Keith Tse


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Cantonese interrogatives

Having dealt with the etymology of Cantonese ‘why?’ 點解, it is now time to look at all the other interrogatives (question words). All the main interrogatives in Cantonese and Mandarin can be tabulated this:

Cantonese                               Mandarin

What?         乜嘢 (mat ye) (>咩 meh)       甚麼東西 (shenme dongxi)

Who?          邊個 (bin goh)                         誰 (shei)

When?        幾時 (gei si)                             甚麼時候 (shenme shihou)

Where?       邊度 (bin do)                           哪裏 (nali)

How?           點樣 (dim yeung)                  怎麼樣 (zenmeyang)

Why?           點解 (dim gaai)                      為什麼 (weishenme)

Which?       邊個 (bin goh)                         哪個 (nage)

A lot can be said about these correspondences, which are remarkable to say the least. First of all, the interrogative element for ‘what?’ is 乜(Cantonese)/甚麼(Mandarin) with 嘢(Cantonese)/東西(Mandarin) ‘thing’ attached to it as an auxiliary. Secondly, the element for ‘which?’ is 邊(Cantonese)/哪(Mandarin), which begs the very interesting question as to why the word for ‘who?’ is 邊個 lit. ‘which one?’ in Cantonese. All my mainland students and colleagues have noted this and asked me about this and I have not yet been able to give them a response (sorry…). ‘How?’ has already been dealt with in my last post, which is 點(Cantonese)/怎麼(Mandarin), as seen in 點樣(Cantonese)/怎麼樣(Mandarin) lit. ‘how/what form?’ Other than that one could also point out that the interrogative locative ‘where’ is 邊度(Cantonese)/哪裡(Mandarin) lit. ‘Which place?’, which shows that the morpheme for expressing place is 度(Cantonese)/裡(Mandarin, sometimes written 裏 in traditional Chinese), which will be discussed further in a (not-too-)future post. This comparison shows the sheer variety and diversity of morphemes in our dialects as well as the structural and architectural neatness in our common grammatical system. Nothing tops that.

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© Keith Tse (2015-) 

London, United Kingdom