Cantonese Final Particles (尾音)
Original article kindly contributed by Clyde Law
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Cantonese is a language that's famous (or infamous, depending on how
you look at it) for its sentence final particles (尾音 mei2
jam1). In English, we usually modify the mood or meaning of a
sentence by uttering it in a different tone. However, since
Cantonese is a tonal language, where changing the tone of a word may
actually change the word into a different word, there is much less
flexibility to do so. This is where the sentence final particles
come in. These particles are often used to modify the mood or
sometimes even the meaning of a sentence. Its purported that
Cantonese may have up to a hundred of these particles, but in reality the
ones used in daily life number much less. This article lists some of
the most common ones encountered in everyday speech.
Before you begin
It should also be noted that learners should not attempt to use these particles until they fully understand their usage. Using the wrong particle in a sentence may make a sentence sound extremely funny, strange, or even rude and insulting. It is okay for students of Cantonese to leave out particles most of the time when they are still learning; the main meaning of the sentence will still be conveyed. However, to become fully fluent, the particles should eventually be mastered. Students of Cantonese should try to learn only a few at a time and verify with native Cantonese speakers to ensure that they are being correctly used.
You may also notice that more than one particle can be combined in some cases. This is explained further near the end of the article. Also at the end of the article is an explanation about the Chinese characters used to write the particles.
The following list is a list of the most common particles that should
be mastered first. The usage of some of these particles may be
necessary to convey the correct meaning in a statement or question.
||呀||Used in neutral questions. Also used to
soften the tone of affirmative statements so they don't sound as
|Where are you going?|
|I'm going home.|
||嘅||Used in assertions where something is emphasized (usually 係 hai6 is in front of what is being emphasized). Pronouncing it as ge2 adds a sense of puzzlement about the situation. This is equivalent to the Mandarin/written Chinese 的 dik1.||我係今日返屋企嘅|
|I'm going home today. (the "today" is emphasized)|
||㗎||Contraction of the combination 嘅呀
ge3 aa3. Pronouncing it as gaa2 adds a sense of
reservation or doubt about the situation.
|When are you coming back? (the "when" is emphasized)|
|laak3||嘞||Indicates a change of situation or a past event that has occured and adds a sense of current relevence to the statement. This is equivalent to the Mandarin/written Chinese sentence final 了 liu5.||佢返咗屋企嘞|
|He went home.|
|laa3||嚹 or 啦||(same as 嘞 laak3)|
|laa1||喇 or 啦||Used in requests and imperatives. This is one particle where leaving it out could make the sentence sound rude, so learners should attempt to master this particle. This is equivalent to the Mandarin/written Chinese sentence final 吧 baa6.||返來喇|
|Come back [please].|
||未||Used in questions asking whether an action has been
|Has he come back yet?|
||先||Can be used to mean "first" in a
sentence. In questions, it may impart a sense of impatience.
|We'll wait for him to come back first.|
|Are you coming back or not? [Answer me quickly.]|
||添||Can be used to mean "also,"
"too," or "as well" in a sentence (usually
occurs with 重 zung6).
|I still have to go home as well.|
More advanced particles
The following is a list of other particles that may be encountered.
Usage of these particles is not completely required, but they may help to
clarify the meaning of a statement or question.
|aa1||吖 or ㄚ||Can indicate enthusiastic consent or a sarcastic
retort. Can also be used like 喇 laa1.
|Okay! I'll follow you home!|
|How am I supposed to be able to go home? (sarcastically)|
|Come back [please].|
||吖 or 呀||Used in questions expecting agreement, sometimes
with a sense of disapproval.
|You're going home? [But really I don't want you to.]|
||㗎||Contraction of the combination 嘅吖 ge3 aa4.||你係今日返屋企㗎?|
|You're going home today? [But really I don't want you to. Can't you wait until tomorrow?] (the "today" is emphasized)|
|me1||咩||Used in questions expressing surprise or disbelief.||佢今日返來咩?|
|He's coming back today? [Really? I wasn't aware of this.]|
||呢||Used in follow up questions or when a question is
repeated but for a different subject. Also used for
rhetorical questions where an answer is not expected (especially
when the speaker is wondering to himself/herself).
|He came back, are you coming back?|
|I wonder why he's going home.|
||嗎||Used to change a statement into a neutral question. This is used more often in Mandarin/written Chinese, but can still be heard in Cantonese.||你返屋企嗎?
|Are you coming home?|
||啫||Can be used to mean "only" or
"that's all," or used to play down the significance of
|He's only coming back for one day.|
||嗻||(same as 啫 zek1)
||咋||Contraction of the combination 啫呀/嗻呀 ze1 aa3.||佢返一日咋|
|He's only coming back for one day. (slightly less abrupt than 佢返一日啫)|
||咋||Contraction of the combination 啫吖/嗻吖 ze1 aa4.||佢返一日咋?|
|He's only coming back for one day? [Only one day? I wish it was more.]|
||啩||Indicates uncertainty in a statement.
|He went home [but I'm not completely sure of this].|
||喎||Indicates information is being reported. Pronouncing it as wo5 adds the indication that the information is second-hand and the speaker may not agree with it.||爸爸叫你返屋企喎|
|Father is telling you to come home.|
||噃||Indicates that the sentence is a reminder.
|It is quick to go home by car. (used in the context where the person being addressed may not have thought about driving home)|
||囉||Indicates a suggestion or conclusion that should be
obvious (usually occurs with 咪 mai6).
|Without a car, [then of course] I am unable to go home.|
||囉 or 咯||Indicates an agreement with the previous speaker.||好,我跟你返屋企囉
|Okay, I will follow you home.|
||吓||Used to soften an instruction, similar to adding
"okay?" in English.
|Remember to buy milk, okay?|
||呵||Used to check whether a statement is correct, similar to adding "right?" in English.||你買咗奶呵?|
|You bought the milk, right?|
||呀嘛||Used in response to a question where the answer is
|He's going home! [So of course he can't go to the movies with us.]|
||啦嘛||Contraction of the combination 嘞呀嘛/嚹呀嘛 laa3 aa1 maa3.||佢返咗屋企啦嘛!|
|He went home! [So of course he can't be here right now.]|
||咖嘛||Contraction of the combination 嘅呀嘛
ge3 aa1 maa3.
|I'm coming home tomorrow! [So of course I won't be able to see you today.] (the "tomorrow" is emphasized)|
||咋嘛||Contraction of the combination 啫呀嘛/嗻呀嘛 ze1 aa1 maa3.||佢返一日咋嘛!|
|He's only coming back for a day! [So of course he won't have time to visit all of us.]|
||之嘛||Can be used to mean "only".||我返屋企之嘛|
|I'm only going home. [...and nothing else. What else are you expecting from me?]|
Particles may also be chained together to convey more than one mood.
The contractions exhibited in the above lists are already the result of
the chaining of two particles together. There are unwritten rules
about which particles can be combined and in what order they occur which
are probably too complicated to explain here. However, one good rule
of thumb is that 嘅 ge3 always comes
before the other particles. In addition, the particles used in
questions (呀 aa3, 咩
me1, 呢 ne1,
嗎 maa3, etc.) always come last.
The best bet for students of Cantonese is to
first master the single particles before moving onto combining more than
one together. Even then, there are very few cases where you would
need to combine more than two. Again, check with a native Cantonese
speaker before you start using such combinations. In addition to the
contractions above, the most common are 嘅嘞/嘅嚹
ge3 laak3/ge3 laa3 (assertion + relevance), 嘅咩 ge3
me1 (assertion + surprise), and 嚹咩 laa3 me1
(relevance + surprise; sometimes ends up being pronounced le3 me1).
Here's one case where three particles are chained together:
Written characters for particles