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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Grammar and linguistics: thoughts from a linguistic researcher and language teacher (2)

Chinese dialectology really is fascinating. By ‘fascinating’, I do not mean that the dialectal situation in China is unique. I actually believe that it shares many similarities with other similarly dialectally dense countries: Italy, Germany, Arabic-speaking countries etc. Ferguson’s seminal paper ‘Diglossia’ outlines some key devices for analyzing societal bilingualism, namely the allocation of linguistic varieties to specific activities in society, and Fasold proposes many different types of societal bilingualism, all of which are underlined by the assumption that different registers of the same language can be allocated to different societal activities. One key criterion is the degree of formality, and so ‘formal’ activities usually require an official, literary, ‘high’ register, while ‘informal’ activities can be conducted in an unofficial, regional, ‘low’ register. Such configurations can definitely be argued for for modern China where Mandarin is not only taught in schools but also used in newspapers, newsfeed, formal documents etc, while regional dialects are used in almost every other walks of life. In Hong Kong, we learn literary, classical Chinese (aka Mandarin) at school, while at home we regularly (if not obligatorily) speak Cantonese with our family and friends. Similar configurations have also been confirmed for Shanghai, Shandong, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Taiwan etc. Such robust diglossic evidence makes the present author uncomfortable in accepting the notion that the numerous linguistic varieties in China should be termed ‘languages’ rather than ‘dialects’ (more about the language/dialect divide in a future post).

In the last post, I mentioned some very simple dialectal comparisons between Mandarin and Cantonese, namely the personal pronominal system, which displays broad similarities and small differences between dialects. In this post, I propose to analyse two other constructions, namely 先 xian/sin ‘first, beforehand’ and 多 duo/doh ‘more’, both of which are adverbs and are subject to different adverbial placements in Mandarin and Cantonese (a recent survey reveals that these microvariations seem to constitute a North/South divide in Chinese dialects in that northern dialects pattern with Mandarin whereas numerous southern dialects go with Cantonese).

Chinese is famously for being a language without tense (T), and there have been arguments that there is no V-to-T movement in Chinese, which is supported by the fact that verbal adjuncts (e.g. adverbs) are regularly placed before the verb. 先 xian in Mandarin is therefore obligatorily placed before the main verb e.g.

我   先    去  北京

wo xian qu Beijing

I    first   go Beijing

‘I’ll first go to Beijing.’

Notice that i) the English future morpheme ‘ll is pragmatically inferred from context and there is no morpheme for future in Chinese for this example ii) the adverb first in English can be placed either before or after the main verb go, whereas in Mandarin Chinese 先 xian comes before the verb 去 qu. In Cantonese, however, the corresponding (see my earlier post for the idea of dialectal correspondence) adverb 先 sin is regularly placed after the main verb e.g.

我       去    北    京      先

ngoh hui Bak Ging sin

I        go  Beijing     first

‘I’ll first go to Beijing.’

(我先去北京 ngoh sin hui Bak Ging is attested in Cantonese, though it is literary and formal rather than colloquial). The adverbial placement of 先 xian/sin therefore constitutes dialectal microvariation in Chinese dialectology.

Similar things can be said for 多 duo/doh ‘more’. In Mandarin, 多 duo regularly (though not obligatorily) comes before the verb e.g.

我  要            多       練             兩       個    小時

wo yao        duo    lian          liang ge   xiaoshi

I  more practise    two   CL  hour

‘I have to practise for two more hours.’

In Cantonese, on the other hand,  多 doh comes after the verb e.g.

我       要            練            多       兩         個      鐘頭

ngoh yiu          lin          doh    leung  goh  jung tau

I   practise more  two     CL   hour

‘I have to practise for two more hours’.

The microvariation here, however, is a bit different from sin, since while Cantonese 多 doh comes straight after the verb (e.g. 練多 lin doh ‘practise more’), Cantonese 先 sin comes after the verb AND its corresponding object (e.g. 去北京先 hui Bak Ging sin ‘(first) go to Beijing (first)’)- in theoretical terms, we would say that Cantonese doh comes between the verb and its object, whereas Cantonese 先 sin comes after the entire verb phrase (VP): V (多 doh) Obj; VP (先 sin) (the corresponding rules in Mandarin would be: (多 duo) V Obj; (先 xian) VP). The following corresponding sentences reveal the distribution of Mandarin and Cantonese adverbial placements:

你      先      多        練               幾     年         吧

ni      xian duo     lian            ji      nian    ba                     (Mandarin)

you   first  more   practise  few   year   PARTICLE

你       練              多        幾      年        先     啦

nei     lin            doh     gei    nin     sin    lah                    (Cantonese)

you    practise  more  few   year   first  PARTICLE

‘You practise for a few more years first!’

先     多    練   幾 年                              練   多   幾   年   先

xian duo lian ji nian (Mandarin)~ lin doh gei nin sin (Cantonese)

(先 xian + VP ~ VP + 先 sin; 多 duo + V ~ V + 多 doh)

These examples illustrate the microvariations in Chinese dialects, which can be shown to be systematic and productive. It would be hugely productive, in my opinion, for teachers and researchers of Chinese (dialects) to compile more such observations, which would no doubt facilitate our understanding and learning of Chinese (dialects). Furthermore, any such research would constitute evidence for the possibility of bridging the gap between formal syntax (all the rules posited above) and sociolinguistics (the society in question and its diglossic configuration/distribution of dialects).

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