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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese copulas

I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine and his then-fiancée (now wife) a while ago. My friend and I are both from Hong Kong, so we were brought up speaking Cantonese and Mandarin. His fiancée, however, is from Beijing and so she only speaks Mandarin. She once asked me why people from Cantonese-speaking regions would often attach sentence-final particles to copular constructions in Mandarin e.g.

他  是   北京       人          來  的

Ta shi beijing ren        lai  de

He BE Beijing person LAI DE

‘He is a person from Beijing.’

I cracked up immediately when I heard this, since this is a very interesting dialectal contamination between Cantonese and Mandarin. In Mandarin, the sentence above is ungrammatical (though not unintelligible). In Cantonese, however, this corresponds to a particular copular construction where we attach the sentence-final particles 嚟嘅, which correspond verbatim to Mandarin 來的 e.g.

佢    係   北京         人           嚟  嘅

Kui hai bakging yan        lai geh

He  BE  Beijing   person  LAI GEH

‘He is a person from Beijing.’

As a result, Cantonese speakers have a tendency to attach the Mandarin corresponding 來的 when they use the copular construction in Mandarin. It must be said, however, that these particles do not have any specific meaning and are used purely for emphasis (in the cited example, it may be translated as ‘he is indeed a person from Beijing’). The example above should be rendered in proper Mandarin as follows:

他   可     是   北京       人

Ta  ke    shi beijing  ren

He ADV BE Beijing  person

‘He is indeed a person from Beijing.’

Chinese (and Japanese and Korean) is famous for having lots of sentence-final particles, and Cantonese is particularly abundant in such particles, some of which are entirely dialect-particular and do not exist in other dialects like Mandarin. Hence the creation of such non-sensical particles in Mandarin by Cantonese speakers. Stupid, but at the same time fascinating (if not a little funny). Sentence-final particles in East Asian languages are numerous and fascinating, which will be dealt with in another post at another time.

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