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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese DPs (2)

For the first time in forever (cf Disney’s Frozen), I wrote a blog about the nominal, rather than clausal, structure of Chinese, and as explained, there are dialectal micro-differences in the hierarchical arrangements of nominal elements (e.g. determiners, demonstratives, classifiers, numbers, quantifiers etc) between Chinese dialects, which begs the question as to how far speakers of Chinese dialects can productively and creatively exploit these micro-differences for the purpose of expressing subtle nuances in nominal expressions. To sum up, the main difference lies in the fact that southern classifiers can be used independently with weak deictic force, comparable to the English articles the (definite) or a (indefinite), which is impermissible in northern dialects of Mandarin. In Cantonese, therefore, it is possible to form minimal pairs between classifiers and the possessive marker (Mandarin 的/Cantonese 嘅), the latter of which does not have any deictic force e.g.

你     嘅       書

you  POSS book

你      本  書

you   CL book

‘Your book’

In the first example, there is a generic interpretation referring to all the books possessed by the addressee (‘your books’ i.e. any book owned by you), whereas in the second, there is implicit reference to a particular book of the addressee, which may be translated as ‘the book of yours’. In Mandarin, on the other hand, as classifiers cannot be used independently with articular force, such fine deictic force would have to be expressed via coercion of either the demonstrative or the bare noun i.e.

你    的      书

you POSS book

你    这    本 书

you this CL book

‘Your book’

Under normal circumstances, the bare noun (你的书) and the demonstrative (你这本书) would denote generic (‘your book(s)) and locative entities (‘this book of yours’) respectively, but in reference to a particular book, these could be used to mean a particular book (‘the book of yours’), given that it is contextually obvious and pragmatically implied. As before, it all boils down to the fine gradation of nominal elements, and while Cantonese classifiers function as an intermediate category between the bare noun and the demonstrative, its relative dependence in Mandarin yields this intermediate function opaque. Amazingly fine-grained structure.

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