Sinitic Grammar: Dialectal Microvariations

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All Sinitic varieties are subsumed under the general pan-national notion of 漢語 which means ‘Chinese language’. Can parametric regularity be discerned between such a multitude of dialects?

As is well known, Sinitic varieties which are collectively known as Chinese dialects display a wide range of microvariations, some of which may be unified under the notion of pan-Sinitic grammar while others pertain to regional dialectalisation. Under current formal parametric assumptions about linguistic variation and change, it is possible to present and understand some of these microvariations systematically. Here are some important properties of Chinese dialects which have been noted in my teaching and research of Chinese language and linguistics:


Let’s start with the big picture. Sinitic varieties obey a general clausal schema which may be represented thus:

COMP Subject Adv AUX Verb-Affix Object Verbal-Adv SFP

These are mostly standard grammatical labels and a brief explanation is that COMP stands for conjunctions, namely words that introduce clauses, Adv stands for temporal and circumstantial adverbs denoting time, logic and space, AUX contains a closed class of verbal auxiliaries which denote various notions of tense and mood, Affix coming after the Verb represents verbal suffixes (endings), Verbal-Adv stands for a different type of adverbs which modify the verb, and SFP is the abbreviation for sentence-final particle, a prominent category in East Asian languages which consists of morphemes placed at the end of clauses expressing a range of clausal force, emotion and mood. A typical Chinese sentence would be:

因爲 你們 當時 沒 想-到 我們,

yinwei nimen dangshi mei jian-dao women

because you.PL then NEG see-AFF we.PL

所以 我們 就 等-了 你們 這麽 久 啊

suoyi women jiu deng-le nimen zheme jiu a we.PL therefore wait-AFF you.PL so long.time SFP

‘Because you did not see us then, so we waited for you for so long.’

In accordance with the schema above, 因爲 ‘because’ and 所以 ‘and so’ are COMP elements which function as (here causal) connectives. The two clauses both have overt subjects (你們 ‘you (plural)’, 我們 ‘we, us’) which are arguments of their respective verbs (沒想到 ‘not seen’, 等了 ‘waited’), and the verbs in both clauses are modified by sentence-adverbs (當時 ‘then’, 就 ‘therefore’) and verbal adverbs (這麽久 ‘so long’), which get rounded off by an SFP (啊 ‘exclamative’). The key areas for dialectal microvariations lie in the positioning of the adverb 先 ‘before(hand)’ and the quantifier 多/少 ‘more/less’, which tend to come before the verb in standard Mandarin but after it in southern varieties (e.g. Cantonese):

請 先 讓 乘客 下 車

qing xian rang chengke xia che

please before let passenger descend carriage

唔該 俾 乘 客 落 車 先

nggoi bei singhaak lok che sin

please let passenger descend carriage before

‘Please let passengers alight the carriage first.’

你 就 多/少 吃 一點 吧

ni jiu duo/shao chi yidian ba

you therefore more/less eat a.bit SFP


nei zau sik do/siu d la

you therefore eat more/less a.bit SFP

‘You should eat more/less.’

In summary, then, it is possible to posit parameters for the Adv constituent, which, in the cases of 先 ‘before(hand)’ and 多/少 ‘more/less’, may come before or after the Verb according to a rough North-South divide:

COMP Subject Adv AUX (先/多/少) Verb-Affix (先/多/少) Object Verbal-Adv SFP

As verbs are widely analysed as heads of clauses, the next section delves into the microvariations in verbal constructions across Chinese dialects.


In my experience of teaching Chinese language and linguistics, verbal affixes which denote a range of aspectual values can be extremely useful in applied linguistic, since they express many different temporal notions that are essential in everyday communication. The main scope of Chinese verbal affixes is encapsulated as follows:


V-了/V-咗 (completive aspect):

他 看-了 書 / 佢 睇-咗 書

ta kan-le shu / keui tai-zo sue

he read-AFF book/ he read-AFF book

‘He read books.’

V-過/V-過 (experiential aspect)

他 去-過 上海 / 佢 去-過 上海

ta qu-guo shanghai / keui heui-gwo seunghoi

he go-AFF Shanghai / he go-AFF Shanghai

‘He has been to Shanghai.’

V-著/V-住 (stative aspect)

他 盯-著 電腦 / 佢 𥄫-著 部 電腦

ta ding-zhe diannao / keui gap-zue bo dinno

he stare-AFF computer / he stare-AFF the computer

‘He is staring at the computer.’

V-光/V-晒 (universal exhaustive reading on the argument of the verb e.g. ‘they all V’):

人 死-光 了 / 人 死-晒 啦

ren si-guang le / jan sei-saai la

people die-AFF SFP / people die-AFF SFP

‘All the people died.’

V-定/V-梗/硬 (certainty):

你 嬴-定 / 你 嬴-梗/硬

ni ying-ding / nei yeng-gang/ngaang

you win-AFFIX / you win-AFFIX

‘You definitely win.’

V-囘/V-翻 (iterative i.e. ‘to do something again):

你 拿-囘 東西 / 你 攞-返 啲 嘢

ni na-hui dongxi / nei lo-faan d ye

you take-back thing / you take-back the thing

‘You take your things back.’

Furthermore, there are some verbal affixes that are only used in dialects (here Cantonese) that do not correspond directly to any verbal suffixes in Mandarin and periphrases are needed to express the equivalent notions:

Cantonese (~ Mandarin)

V-緊 (V-gan), which denotes ongoing activity (~ Mandarin 正在 zhengzai V ‘to be V-ing’):

佢 睇-緊 電視 / 他 正在 看 電視

keui tai-gan dinsi / ta zhengzai kan dianshi

he watch-AFF television / he is watch television

‘He is watching TV.’

V-得 (V-dak), which has a permissive or possible reading on the activity (i.e. it is allowed or it is possible to take place) (~Mandarin 可以 keyi V ‘can V’):

我 去-得 / 我 可以 去

ngoh heui dak / wo keyi qu

I go-AFF / I can go

‘I can go.’

V-得 (V-dak), which denotes ‘only’ and modifies the argument of the verb (~ Mandarin 只zhi V ‘only V’):

你 睇-得 嗰 一 本 書 / 你 只 看 那 一 本 書

nei tai-dak go yat boon sue / ni zhi kan na yi ben shu

you read-AFF that one CL book / you only read that one CL book

‘You only read that one book.’

V-埋 (V-maai), which denotes ‘also’ and modifies the argument(s) of the verb (~ Mandarin 也 ye V ‘also V/V also’):

你 食-埋 個 啲 嘢 / 你 也 吃 那 些 東西

nei sik-maai go d ye / ni ye chi na xie dongxi

you eat-AFF that CL thing / you also eat that CL thing

‘You eat those things too.’

As shown, Chinese displays a great number of affixal distinctions which show morphemic correspondences and divergences across dialects (here Mandarin and Cantonese). Based on these patterns, one can generate a great deal of verbal constructions (V-Affix). It now remains to explore the nominal patterns which are dealt with in the next and final section.


The nouns which fill the various argument positions (subject, object) of the verb in the clause also have internal structure of their own and here the dialectal microvariation gets very interesting. On a par with clauses above, Sinitic nominal structure can be generalised thus:


As before, some of these glosses require explanation: DEM stands for demonstratives such as proximal and distal (‘this’/’that’); NUM/Q stands for numerals and quantifiers which have the unified function of quantifying nouns/entities; CL stands for classifiers which are essential for counting and quantification in East Asian languages (Japanese included); MOD stands for modifiers which include adjectives and relative clauses; DE is a unique morpheme in Chinese which is a low element linking nouns (N) to their modifiers (MOD) or denoting possession. Some illustrative examples are in order:

這 兩 本 我們 喜歡 的 書

zhe liang ben women xihuan de shu

these two CL we like DE book

‘these two books that we like’

那 幾 個 身材 高大 的 男人

na ji ge shencai gaoda de nanren

those several CL body.shape big DE man

‘those several physically big men’

In this hierarchy, dialectal differences lie in the positioning, morphemes and values of these D-elements, since in southern varieties like Cantonese it is possible to use the CL as the head of the noun phrase denoting definiteness (cf (in)definite articles e.g. English a/the), whereas in Mandarin CL must always be preceded by either DEM or Num/Q:

本 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

boon sue/zaapzi/mukluk/siusuet

CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘a/the book/magazine/catalogue/novel’

*(這/那/一)本 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

zhe/na/yi ben shu/zazhi/mulu/xiaoshuo

this/that/a CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘this/that/a book/magazine/catalogue/novel’

Furthermore, as CL displays number distinctions of singular and plural, Cantonese uses the plural CL to denote (in)definite plural entities (cf English the/some), which is also impossible in Mandarin:

啲 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

d sue/zaapzi/mukluk/siusuet

the/some books/magazines/catalogues/novels

‘the/some books/magazines/catalogues/novels’

*(這/那) 些 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

zhe/na xie shu/zazhi/mulu/xiaoshuo

this/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘these/those books/magazines/catalogues/novels’

The same applies to the possessive use of 的, which in Cantonese can be substituted by the CL in denoting referential possessum:

你 的 書

ni de shu

you POSS book

‘your book(s)’

你 本 書 / 你 啲 數

nei boon sue / nei d sue

you CL.SG book / you CL.PL book

‘the book of yours/the books of yours’

So here it is. The dialectal microvariations in Sinitic are by no means exhausted here (not by a long way!) but nonetheless these are some general comparative patterns that are richly attested in everyday uses of Chinese dialects. One should also bear in mind that the underlying schemata which underlie these microvariations may be posited as pan/proto-Sinitic parameters which may have different values in different varieties.

This post contains a conglomerate of blogs originally published at For more insights into Chinese dialects and linguistics, the reader is referred to

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