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Keith Tse


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Chinese dialectal syntax (2)

In my previous blog, I wrote about a very subtle phenomenon which separates Cantonese and Mandarin (or south and north in general), namely the issue of adverbial placement and the ensuing changes in category of adverbs in Cantonese. I was just chatting with a friend on Facebook chat and noticed something in our colloquial register that I had not noticed before, namely question-formation. As explained before, Mandarin is the lingua franca in Hong Kong and mainland China and we often switch between formal Mandarin and vernacular Cantonese in sociolinguistically high (formal) and low (informal) contexts respectively. On chat engines like Facebook, Whatsapp and Wechat etc, we often use dialectal/regional forms in our writing, since we are chatting with our mates, but since writing, as opposed to speaking, is a formal linguistic medium which is always conditioned by standardized linguistic conventions, such ‘colloquial writing’ is a rather paradoxical concept and it often contains an interesting admixture of formal and informal elements. In this recent conversation, I realize that I wrote this:

你    聽日            會    返         大學            嗎?

you tomorrow will return university PART

‘Will you go to the university tomorrow?’

This is a standard yes-no question in Chinese with the question particle 嗎  (?) governing the otherwise canonical declarative (你聽日會返大學 ‘you will go to the university tomorrow’) , which contains a whole load of colloquial Cantonese form (聽日 ~ 昨天 ‘yesterday’, 返 ~ 回 ‘to return’). However, there is one thing that makes this a strange utterance if it were produced in day-to-day speech, and that is the question-formation particle 嗎, which is really a literary form and the most common type of construction for yes-no questions in colloquial speech in Cantonese is V-neg-V alternation plus the question particle 呀:

你    聽日            會     唔    會    返         大學            呀?

you tomorrow will NEG will return university PART

The former sentence is still perfectly intelligible, though the latter is far more natural in speech. It is interesting how even in the least formal type of writing (chatting with friends online), such literary registers can affect our ‘written speech’ (and I promise that it was totally unintentional and purely instinctive, despite my generally negative attitude towards dialectal forms…). Looks like the boundaries between sociolinguistically high and low contexts can be quite fluid and be blurred by numerous linguistic factors. I should really watch what I write in my speech (or what I say in my writing).

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