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Keith Tse


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Chinese dialectal syntax

I mentioned earlier some very fine and subtle differences between Cantonese and Mandarin (or southern vs northern in general), namely in the order of adverbs with respect to the verb. In the south, it is customary to place 先 ‘before, first’ and 多/少 ‘more/less’ after the verb, whereas in the north they usually precede the verb. There are also differences between 先 and 多/少 in that while the former tends to come after the entire verb phrase (V + obj + 先), the latter come right after the verb (V + 多/少 + (obj)). As a result, 多 and 少 are often analysed as objects of the verb rather than adverbs, since they often come between the verb and its direct object. In this sense, they seem to function like an object in a three-place predicate (cf English dative shifts: I gave a book to him vs I gave him a book). This is an interesting hypothesis, since it predicts that 多 and 少 can partake in object shifts, which is indeed borne out. In Cantonese, it is possible to shift the position of 多 and 少 in three-place verb constructions e.g.

入       多/少          你    兩    球

score more/less you two ball

入       你     多/少         兩    球

Score you more/less two ball

‘Score two more/fewer goals against you’ (a phrase uttered to me in a FIFA game, which, needless to say, was a vain threat)

These three-place verb constructions, therefore, indicate the object status of 多 and 少 as they seem to be able to occur in different object positions. Fascinating syntax.

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