The Diverse Structures of the Cantonese Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

There are more than 6,000 recorded languages all over the world, and as may be expected, there is huge diversity within these languages. Some of the most intriguing languages, however, to an Indo-European language speaker, can be the languages spoken in East and Southeast Asia, which have features that are poles apart from many western languages.

Stylized picture of Cantonese Chinese characters for numbers.
There are certain characteristics of East and Southeast Asian languages, such as Cantonese, that mark their divergence from Indo-European languages. (Image: Keitma/Shutterstock)

The Contextual Omission of Words

A remarkable feature of many language families in East and Southeast Asia is that they choose to omit a number of words, leaving them to be inferred from context. 

In Cantonese, for instance, there are no separate words for he, she, and it. The same word is used and the meaning is implied. Further, there are no separate possessive pronouns. For example, the same word is used for I and My

As a trade-off for the lost words, Cantonese speakers also attach certain words toward the ends of sentences to provide more context to their speech. These are supposed to create coherence for the situation at hand. 

The omission of words that are left to context makes such languages really complex for those who are not acquainted with this system. But in reality, there are many ways in which such languages come to terms with this complexity and hold additional meaning. They convert things which English speakers may perceive as junk, to words with meaning and context.

Learn more about whether culture drives language change.

The Ge and Other Markers in Cantonese

One of the things that adds meaning in Cantonese is the very commonly used ge. This is added at the end of a sentence in addition to intonation. Using ge is also a kind of completion to the sentence, not using it toward the end might be construed as leaving a sentence unfinished.  

Ge is not the only one of these markers. There are a lot of these markers, which convey things one would not even otherwise imagine to be part of a language. For instance, when someone is providing a contextually bound explanation of something, they would, in English, simply provide an explanation which would be rife with reference. For instance, if a child were to be asked why he couldn’t fall asleep, he might say “it’s too noisy”. The statement would fit into the context, it would not be an arbitrary gesticulation about a noisy environment, and this would be implied in context and tone. In Cantonese however, the statement would also be followed by a simple la. This la would work to drive home the reference in which the statement was made. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Stringing Words Together

In Cantonese, as in several other languages, not only do these words exist alone and at the end of sentences, but they can, in fact, be strung together to indicate the speaker’s feelings about a situation, and its relevance with the context. 

For instance, take an English sentence, “All I want is for Vincent to be good for me”, that is preceded by a long conversation in a sitcom, and is the ending dialogue that pops us just as the closing soundtrack rambles on. In an attempt to capture all the contextual details, the sentence in Cantonese would be “ngóh yiu Vincent deui ngóh hóu jauh dāk ge la”.  In this sentence, the original English sentence is captured in just one part, which is Ngóh yiu Vincent deui ngóh hóu, and this is followed by jauh dāk ge la. While it may seem senseless, each of these words conveys some important information. 

Here, the jauh conveys a kind of finality, that is representative of the fact that the episode is at its end and the soundtrack has come on. Subsequently, the dāk conveys a sense that the sentence is a kind of summarization of the conversation. Then, the ge, as seen earlier, creates an assertion of the idea contained in the sentence. Finally, the la conveys that the entire conversation served as the context for the last sentence, thereby finishing the sentence, ngóh yiu Vincent deui ngóh hóu jauh dāk ge la.
All these ‘particles’, which almost sound like gibberish to non-speakers, are assertive parts of the grammar of a language that is very expressive. These particles express what linguists call pragmatics. Cantonese has about 30 such particles. 

'Hello' written in English and Cantonese
Languages, such as Cantonese, have many features which differentiate them significantly from languages, such as English.
(Image: Keitma/Shutterstock)

Learn more about word changes in language mixture.

Cantonese Numeral Classifiers 

Another prominent feature that a lot of Asian and East Asian languages have is numeral classifiers.

Whenever a noun is used along with a number in English, a word may be needed to classify the kind of noun it is. Although this is not always present in English, it can be seen often, such as in the phrase “two head of cattle”. We adopt this usage despite its redundancy. 

In Cantonese, however, this usage is not just peculiar to certain archaic constructions, it is much more prevalent in everyday usage. For instance, the word ēung is used when someone is talking about things that are flat. So, to say one table in Cantonese, it would not be yāt tói: yāt—one, tói—table. Instead, the phrase would be yāt jēung tói—one flat of table. 

For something that is round, a different numeral classifier is used. In that case, jek is used. So, one egg would become yāt jek gāidáan, or one blob of egg. This principle would also work on a wristwatch, for which one wristwatch would become yāt jek sáubīu, one blob of wristwatch.
A long and thin thing, such as a pen, would use the classifier , creating the sentence yāt jī bāt. For a flute, the same sentence would go: yāt jī dék. 

There are many such ‘particles’ in Cantonese, to the extent that it is not always easy to predict what class an object is going to be in. Yet, they are used. It is almost like putting nouns into categories that the conventional understanding of English would never deem necessary. 

This categorization goes beyond Cantonese and is very common in Southeast Asian languages. In fact, Japanese has them, as well. These numeral classifiers are actually one of the well-known contributors to the infamous difficulty of learning these languages. 

The peculiar behavior of these languages goes on to exemplify the diversity of people and cultures in different parts of the world. It shows how languages and cultures from other parts of the world are poles apart from what is construed as ordinary in the Indo-European world. This diversity is part and parcel of the language change process that has taken place over centuries and centuries of evolution. 

Common Questions About the Cantonese Language

Q: Why are certain words not spoken in Cantonese?

In Cantonese, a lot of words are omitted as they are left to be understood, or are implied, through context. For instance, there is only one word for he/she/it, and there are often no possessive pronouns.

Q: What are pragmatic markers in Cantonese?

Pragmatic markers are words that are put toward the end of sentences in Cantonese, in order to provide context and meaning to the sentences in such languages, which are often much more expressive and assertive than similar sentences in Indo-European languages.

Q: What are numeral classifiers?

Numeral classifiers are nouns that are used along with numbered objects in order to classify or categorize them, two heads of cattle, for instance. These are even more commonly used in Cantonese and many other Southeast Asian languages.

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