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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Tone conditioned dialectal correspondences in Chinese

Many apologies! Some of my blog-readers have asked me some questions about Chinese dialects lately, but I have been so busy recently that I have not been able to post a response. I was presenting a paper at a conference in Norway last week and when I returned, I was faced with an enormous lag of work. Pardon me for my recent inactivity. Here is a brief response to one of your questions, namely the use of Cantonese 咁, which has two pronunciations and two corresponding usages: gam (tone 2, phonetically realised as 2-5) and gam (tone 3, 3-3). The former is a sentence-adverb/conjunction, and it means ‘thus/and so’ e.g.

咁          你    就     嚟       啦

gam(2) nei  jau    lei      lah  you then come EXHORTATIVE.PARTICLE

‘If so, you should come.’ (note the use of the inferential particle 就)

In this usage, Cantonese 咁 corresponds to Mandarin 那麼:

那麼     你    就     來       吧

name   ni    jiu    lai      ba you then come EXHORTATIVE.PARTICLE

‘If so, you should come.’

Cantonese 咁 (tone 3), however, is an adverb which modifies adjectives, and it means ‘so + adjective’ e.g.

你    咁          靚

nei  gam(3) leng

you so          beautiful

‘You are so beautiful.’

In Mandarin, this would be 這麼 + adjective:

你   這麼      漂亮

ni    zheme piaoliang

you so         beautiful

‘You are so beautiful.’

Cantonese 咁 is therefore another polysemous word with multiple correspondences in Mandarin, and what is special about this word is that its polysemy is conditioned by tones, which is hardly surprising, as Chinese is a tonal language after all and tones do play a grammatical role in distinguishing lexemes in Chinese. The same word can therefore have different meanings when it is pronounced with different tones.

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