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Keith Tse


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Chinese adverb 先 ‘before’: an anecdote on its positioning in Chinese dialects (2)

In a previous post, I mentioned that Cantonese 先 ‘before’ consistently and systematically comes after the VP it modifies. Some of my Mandarin-speaking students have asked me: does 先 ever come before the VP in Cantonese? The answer is: yes. The most obvious locus for this is in formal contexts where Mandarin grammar, being the official dialect, pervades (see my previous post). Another locus is a genuine grammatical construction where Cantonese 先 + VP differs from VP + 先 and stands as an independent construction:

你   返-咗                               嚟       之後   先    諗        啦

nei faan-joh                         lei      jihau sin   nam   lah

you return-COMPLETIVE come after  first think PART

‘Think only after you have returned first.’

The Mandarin equivalent would be:

你    先     回来-了                          之後      才     想       吧

ni    xian huilai-le                       zhihou cai    xiang ba

you first return-COMPLETIVE after     only think PART

‘Think only after you have returned first.’

There are many dialectal correspondences in this pair of examples (more on those on another occasion), and the same alternation between Cantonese and Mandarin occurs, namely VP + 先 in the former (返咗嚟之後 ‘after you have returned’ + 先 ‘first’) and 先 + VP in the latter (先 ‘first’ + 回來了之後 ‘after you have returned’). The post-VP positioning of 先 in Cantonese corresponds to a word in the Mandarin example that is similarly post-VP, namely 才 (先回来了之後 ‘after you have returned first’ + 才 ‘only then’), which consistently comes between two VPs (here 先回来了之後 ‘after you have returned first’ and 想 ‘think’) and denotes their immediate temporal/logical sequence, almost like a conditional clause ‘as long as’. The interpretation is: ‘after you have returned first, it is only then that you should think’ > ‘think only after you have returned first.’ Given the similar positioning between Cantonese 先 and Mandarin 才, Cantonese 先 + VP has taken over functions that are historically and comparatively assumed by Mandarin 才, and when it is used in these ways, it is optionally (though very frequently) strengthened by an extra element (先至 (sin ji)) e.g.

淨係      得     佢   先至 會         咁     做

jinghai dak  kui sinji wui     gam  jo

only     have he  only would thus do

‘Only he would do such thing.’

只    有       他  才     會        這麼      做

zhi   you   ta  cai    hui      zheme zuo

only have he only would thus    do

‘Only he would do such thing.’

Here Cantonese 先至 (sinji) must be analysed non-temporally i.e. as a marker of logical sequence between a noun (佢 ‘he’) and a VP (會咁做 ‘would do thus’) and is thus equivalent to Mandarin 才. I therefore teach my students that in Cantonese VP + 先 denotes temporal anteriority ‘before’ (cf Mandarin 先 + VP), whereas 先 + VP denotes temporal/logical sequence between what comes before 先 and the VP that comes after (cf Mandarin 才 + VP). Fascinating analysis.

PS Can’t believe that I have now written four blogs on 先!!!

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