Chinese Corner

Let’s Go Laaaaaaaa4 min read

And learn Cantonese particles – Rosalyn Shih

“If you’re picturing someone in your head speaking Chinese and it sounds really funny,” Canadian comedian Russell Peters said, “you’re picturing Cantonese.”

Even to non-speakers like Peters, Cantonese is easily identified as the “funnier sounding language” compared to Mandarin: “It’s the more flamboyant one,” he joked, “with the extended sounding words. …Sometimes they speak and it sounds like they’re falling off a cliff. Dong laaaaaaahh…”

What Peters calls the “extended sounding words” are referred to by linguists as sentence-final particles, or simply particles. They are meaningless in themselves but play an important grammatical role. They turn statements into questions, ongoing actions into completed ones, and brusque demands into polite requests. Particles exist in Mandarin as well, most commonly used to ask yes-or-no questions (ma 吗) or make suggestions (ba 吧). Mandarin speakers in Taiwan are prolific with their particles, and are consequently teased by their mainland cousins as “cuter-sounding.” In Singapore, particles have migrated to English, prompting the Quora thread “Why do Singaporeans say lah at the end of every sentence?”

It seems that the more southern the Chinese-speaker, the more particles he or she might use. Citing various studies from 1924 to 1994, Language Log notes the estimates of Cantonese particles are anywhere from 30 to 206. This range might be why the Wikipedia introduction to Cantonese grammar states with exasperation, “There are unwritten rules about which particles can be combined and in what order they occur which are probably too complicated to explain here.” The possibility for mistakes is so high that Clyde Law’s exhaustive guide to Cantonese final particles starts with a warning “that learners should not attempt to use these particles until they fully understand their usage.”

So what’s the purpose of all this variation in Cantonese particles? Why would a language develop dozens of particles, when others seem to get along with just a few?

There is the argument that particles make speech softer, the way that vowel breaking in an Southern drawl might make someone sound more genteel. But this idea doesn’t cut weight in Cantonese. Take, for instance, triad movies, where egregious final particles and lilting intonation make gangsters sound anything from garrulous and informal to threatening and icy cold. (Check out Anthony Wong Chau Sang’s character Fei Gor, one of the most memorable gangsters in Cantonese film, and how his flamboyant endings, sloppy personal hygiene and objectionable morals go hand-in-hand.)

The primary function of particles, then, is to help convey a wider range of emotion and mood – which results in spoken Cantonese sounding particularly colorful. A seemingly harmless final particle might spell the difference between a sentence sounding curious, funny, plaintive, impatient, passive-aggressive or just plain rude. See the following example from a Tumblr post, with pronunciations offered in Jyutping:

keoi5 faan1 zo2 uk1 kei2 佢返咗屋企 (He went home)

佢返屋企 aa3 – (informing the listener) “He went home!”
佢返屋企 laa3  – (informing the listener) “He already went home!”
佢返屋企 wo3  – “Oh… He already went home though” 
佢返屋企 gwaa3 – (with uncertainty) “He went home, I guess”
佢返屋企 me1 咩?  – “Oh, he went home?”
佢返屋企 lo1  – (with emphasis) “He went home already”
佢返屋企 laa3 maa3 啦嘛 – “He went home already! (so he can’t be here right now)”

Apart from its tones, Cantonese particles are the easiest way to separate the novices from the masters. In most instances, however, beginners who leave out or occasionally mix up particles will still make themselves understood. For those determined to learn particles, you might re-watch Disney films in Cantonese. Then, you could graduate to classic TVB sitcoms and game shows. When possible, try to find media with subtitles that more faithfully transcribe the Cantonese, rather than the standard “formal Chinese” (which is usually Mandarin).

Of course, interacting with native speakers is always going to be crucial to your learning. But if you aren’t blessed with constant Canto company, you could record yourself saying sentences and play them for a friend or tutor later.

And remember wo3: If it’s hard at first, don’t worry laa3. Cantonese speakers always take their particles with a dash of good humor, and so should you. ∎

Cantonese transliterations are in Jyutping. Featured image from Gangster Pay Day and under fair use.