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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese 了

I recently got in touch with a former Cantonese student of mine. This student comes from mainland China (north, Heilongjiang, I believe) and we had a very nice conversation. I always enjoy catching up with my old students and friends, and what warmed me most in this encounter was the fact that she wanted to practise her Cantonese, which shows her lingering enthusiasm in our previous object of study. We started talking in Cantonese, and although her Cantonese was a bit rusty, I was pleased by how much she had remembered and how much ability in Cantonese she had retained. There is nothing more encouraging for a teacher to see his students still practising their object of study and showing enthusiasm for it. As we concluded our conversation, however, she said this:

我      要          走   咗

ngoh yiu        jau joh


‘I have to go.’

In Mandarin, it would be this:

我   要           走    了

wo yao         zou le


‘I have to go.’

I was initially confused by what she said, since in Cantonese her utterance (我要走咗) is ungrammatical. I then realised what she meant and why she said this. When I taught her Cantonese, I taught her that Mandarin verbal suffix 了(V-le) was equivalent to Cantonese 咗 (V-joh), and so she had clearly substituted Mandarin 了(V-le) with Cantonese 咗 (V-joh) and produced this ungrammatical utterance. However, Mandarin 了(V-le) is a complex morpheme, as it has multiple meanings: as a verbal suffix, it denotes completive aspect (i.e. it denotes that the action in question has concluded), and this is what Cantonese 咗 (V-joh) means as well. However, Mandarin 了 is also used as a sentence-final particle denoting declarative emphasis (cf English exclamation mark), and in this usage the correct Cantonese equivalent should be 啦 (lah). What she should have said, therefore, should have been:

我      要          走   啦

ngoh yiu        jau lah


‘I have to go.’

There are therefore two dialectal correspondences that we can draw: Mandarin 了(V-le) ~ Cantonese 咗 (V-joh),  Mandarin 了(le) (sentence-final) ~ Cantonese 啦 (lah) (sentence-final). First language interference is very common in second language acquisition (and a headache for language teachers), and in this case my student has conflated Mandarin 了(le) with Cantonese 咗 (joh) to the extent that she has generalised Cantonese 咗 (joh) to all contexts in which Mandarin了(le) is used, even as a sentence-final particle. The dialectal equivalences between Chinese dialects are therefore not entirely straightforward, since there are non-coextensive overlaps which make it impossible to simply substitute morphemes from one dialect with morphemes from another dialect. Fascinating. I hope that I have not embarrassed my student here, as this is a common mistake and perfectly understandable. No shame in making language mistakes (but please don’t do it again).

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