Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cantonese grammar

is an analytic language where, in a sentence, the arrangement of words is important to its meaning. A basic sentence is in form of , i.e. a is followed by a verb then by an , though this order is often violated because Cantonese is a Topic-prominent language. Unlike synthetic languages, seldom do words indicate time, gender and plural by inflection. Instead, these concepts are expressed through adverbs, aspect markers, and particles, or are deduced from the context. Different particles are added to a to further specify its status or .

A verb itself indicates no tense. The time can be explicitly shown with time-indicating adverbs. Certain exceptions exist, however, according to the pragmatic interpretation of a verb's meaning.Additionally, an optional particle can be appended to a verb to indicate the state of an action. Appending interrogative or exclamative particles to a sentence turns a sentence into a question or shows the attitudes of the speaker.

Verbal Aspect

In contrast to many European languages, Cantonese verbs are marked for aspect rather than tense - that is, whether an action has begun, is ongoing, or has been completed. Tense - where an action occurs within time, ie past, present, future - is specified through the use of time adverbs. In addition, verbal complements may convey aspectual distinctions, indicating whether an action is just beginning, is continuing, or at completion, and also the effect of the verb on its object.

Aspect particles are treated as suffixes bound to the verb.

Abbreviations: CL = classifier; SFP = sentence-final particle


Cantonese uses the following pronouns, which like in many other Sinitic languages, function as both subjective and objective :


States and qualities are generally expressed using stative verbs that do not require the verb "to be". For example, to say "I am hungry", one would say 我餓 .

With noun complements, the verb 係 ''hai6'' serves as the verb "to be".

:琴日係中秋節 ''Yesterday was the Mid-Autumn festival''

Another use of 係 is in cleft constructions for emphasis, much like the English construction "It's ... that ...". The sentence particle 嘅 "ge3" often follows.

:佢係完全唔識講廣東話嘅 " s/he cannot speak Cantonese at all."

N.B.: Do not confuse 係 ''hai6'' with 喺 ''hai2'' .

To indicate location, the words 喺 ''hai2'' and 響 ''hoeng2'', which are collectively known as the locatives or sometimes coverbs in Chinese linguistics, are used to express " at":

:我而家喺圖書館 ''I am at the library now''


Many negation words start with the sound m- in Cantonese; for example, 唔 ''m4'' , 冇 ''mou5'' , 未 ''mei6'' . Verbs are negated by adding the character 唔 ''m4'' in front of it. For example:

:我食得花生 ''I can eat peanuts''


:我唔食得花生 ''I cannot eat peanuts''

The exception is the word 有 ''jau5'' , which turns into 冇 ''mou5'' without the use of 唔.

The negative imperative is formed by prefixing 唔好 ''m4 hou2'' or 咪 ''mai5'' in front of the verb:

:唔好睇戲 ''Don't watch movies''

:咪睇戲 ''Don't watch movies''

In contrast to the examples of sentential negation above where the entire sentence is negated, 唔 can also be used lexically to negate a single word. The negated word often differs slightly in meaning from the original word; that is, this lexcial negation is a kind of derivation. Evidence for this is that they can be used with the perfective aspect particle 咗 ''jo2'', which is not possible with sententially negated verbs.

:見 --> 唔見

:記得 --> 唔記得

:錯 --> 唔錯 / 冇錯

:我唔見咗我本書 "I lost my book"

is perfectly acceptable, but

:'*'我唔食咗嘢 "I did not eat"

is ungrammatical.



Yes-or-no questions take the form of SUBJ VERB+唔+VERB:

:你識唔識講廣東話? ''Do you know how to speak Cantonese?''

The exception is with the verb "to have", where one uses the form 有冇 ''jau5 mou5'' for yes-no questions:

:有冇紅綠燈? ''Is there'' ''a traffic light?''

Often, 係 ''hai6'' uses the shortened form 係咪 ''hai6 mai6'' instead of the expected 係唔係.

:佢係咪加拿大人? ''Is he/she a Canadian?''

With multi-character verbs, only the first character is repeated:

:你鐘唔鐘意年糕? ''Do you like new-year cake?''

Interrogative Words

The interrogative words are as follows:



The proximal demonstrative , is 呢 ''ni1'' / ''nei1'' or more frequently in fast speech, 依 ''ji1'' . For example:

:呢本書 ''this book''

:依本書 ''this book''

The distal demonstrative is 嗰 ''go2'' . For example:

:嗰本書 ''that book''


For plural demonstratives, add 啲 ''di1'' before the noun:

:呢啲書 ''these books''

:嗰啲書 ''those books''


For singular nouns, the word 嘅 ''ge3'' is roughly equivalent to English " 's":

:爸爸嘅屋企 ''father's house''

Plural nouns take 啲 ''di1'':

:你啲動物 ''your animals''

N.B.: 啲 is a very versatile word in Cantonese, besides pluralizing certain phrases, it can also mean "a little/few", e.g. 一啲 ''jat1 di1'' , or 早啲 ''earlier'' .

Possessive pronouns are formed by adding 嘅/啲 after the pronoun.

:係佢嘅呀! ''It's his!''

However, in the case where there's an implied plural noun, one does not say:

:係佢啲呀! ''It's his!'.

For example:



嘅呀 ''ge3 aa3'' is usually shortened in speech into one syllable, 嘎/? ''gaa3''.

One could also say:


Both of these are generic possessives.

For some special objects, possessives can be omitted, but not must. For example 屋企 mentioned above.

:爸爸屋企 ''father house''

For specific objects, can be used as possessive as well:

:佢本書 ''his book''

Moreover, measure words in Cantonese can serve as definite articles. E.g. 本書唔見咗 ''The book is lost''. These two usages are not found in Mandarin Chinese.

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