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Keith Tse


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Chinese adverb 先 ‘before’: an anecdote on its positioning in Chinese dialects

In a previous post, I analysed the positioning of the Chinese adverb 先 ‘before’, proposing that while in northern dialects (e.g. Mandarin) 先 (xian) is placed before the verb phrase (VP i.e. verb + object) (先 + VP), in mid-southern dialects (e.g. Cantonese) 先 (sin) is placed after the VP (VP + 先). It follows that the preposing of 先 in northern dialects offers more precision in the scope of the adverb (i.e. which VP exactly it modifies), whereas the post-posing of 先 in mid-southern dialects necessarily creates ambiguity (if not confusion).

I just came back from a friend’s house and while I was there, we uttered the following numerous times:

你   俾   我      搞-掂         呢    樣              嘢       先    啦

nei bei ngoh gaau-dim ni    yeung      yeh    sin   lah

you let me    do-finish  this classifier thing first PART

‘(First) let me do this thing (first).’

It is unclear whether 先 here modifies the first, bigger VP (俾我搞掂呢樣嘢 (bei ngoh gaau dim ni yeung yeh) ‘let me fix this thing’ + 先 (sin) ‘first’) or the second, smaller VP (搞掂呢樣嘢 (gaau dim ni yeung yeh) ‘fix this thing’ + 先 (sin) ‘first’), the former would translate as ‘first let me do this thing’ whereas the latter as ‘let me do this thing first’, since in both cases the surface word order is exactly the same. In Mandarin, however, there would be no ambiguity, since 先 (xian) would come right before the verb ‘to let’ (让) (rang) in the former case and right before the verb ‘to do’ (做好) (zuohao) in the latter:

你    先    让      我   做-好        这    个              东西     吧

ni   xian rang wo zuo-hao   zhe ge             dongxi ba

you first let    me do-finish this classifier thing    PART

‘First let me do this thing.’

你     让      我  先     做-好          这    个             东西     吧

ni     rang wo xian zuo-hao   zhe  ge            dongxi ba

you let     me first  do-finish this classifier thing    PART

‘Let me do this thing first.’

Admittedly, the difference in meaning between these two variants is tiny (and can probably be disambiguated by the context anyway, as was the case in my friend’s home), though it is interesting how Mandarin can capture things that Cantonese cannot. I am not suggesting that Mandarin is more precise than Cantonese, however (though the fact that the former is an official dialect while the latter is a local regional dialect does perhaps entail that bidialectal speakers probably have a clearer understanding of Mandarin grammatical rules than Cantonese ones), as there are loads of expressions and syntactic categories that only exist in Cantonese and are impossible to express in Mandarin. More on this in future posts.

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