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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Grammar and linguistics: thoughts from a linguistics researcher and language teacher (3)

I boarded the MTR (Hong Kong’s equivalent to the London Tube or the European Metro) this morning. The station operator announced on the microphone in Cantonese:

請         先      讓       乘客             落            車

ching   sin   yeung singhaak    lok          che

please first let        passenger  descend carriage

‘Please let the passengers depart the carriage first.’

In Mandarin, this would be:

请          先     让       乘客          下          车

qing     xian rang chengke    xia        che

please first  let     passenger depart carriage

‘Please let the train passengers depart the carriage first.’

The parallels are clear. Phonetic/phonological correspondences aside, the main morphosyntactic correspondences are: xia 下 (Mandarin) ~ lok 落 (Cantonese). As soon as the announcer put down his mic, he routinely came down from his podium and tended to the passengers himself, during which he said (repeatedly in Cantonese):

唔該           俾       乘  客                落              車             先

ng goi       bei      sing haak        lok             che           sin

please       let       passenger      descend    carriage    first

‘Please let the train passengers depart the carriage first.’

Identical meaning, yet not the same construction. Again, the parallels are strong and easily recognisable, though the differences between this piece of utterance and the previous ones require some explaining. The main morphosyntactic correspondences are: ng goi 唔該 (Cantonese) ~ qing 请 (Mandarin), bei 俾 (Cantonese) ~ rang 让 (Mandarin), lok 落 (Cantonese) ~ xia 下 (Mandarin), VP + sin 先 (Cantonese) ~ xian 先 + VP (Mandarin). These grammatical points are very interesting (especially the adverbial placement of 先, which was explained in a previous post, but in this post I would like to highlight the swift and almost automatic reflexes in the announcer’s linguistic patterns of behaviour, the fact that he was capable of code-switching between formal Cantonese (based on Mandarin grammar, as it is the prestige variety in HK and most of China) and colloquial Cantonese just like that. His linguistic reflexes also allowed him to adapt to the small and subtle changes in his environment, the fact that he was employing literary Chinese (aka Mandarin) in making a public announcement but colloquial Cantonese when addressing the passengers personally. Such linguistic behaviour further indicates the sociolinguistic sensitivity and significance in a diglossic society such as HK and the amount of sophistication that is found in our code-switching. The dichotomy between formal syntax and sociolinguistics is thereby false, since there seems to be mutual conditioning between the two, as seen in the use of Mandarin/Cantonese in HK.

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