This lesson contains information on several grammar functions that serve as aspect markers. Because they are inter-related and follow the same basic pattern, they are all treated in one lesson.
Chinese and English differ significantly in how time is handled. English describes the time frame of the action of a sentence through several tenses. There are past, present, and future tenses and these time frames are distinct features of any sentence. In Cantonese, however, these tenses do not exist. References to past, present, and future are not part of the syntax of a sentence.
Cantonese verbs do not change to reflect references to time frames the way an English verb would (like "is" in present tense becomes "was" in past tense and "will be" in future tense). In fact, as long as the context of the discourse makes the time frame clear, an individual sentence does not need to do anything to mark time. When the time reference needs to specified, it is done by adding a time phrase to give the verb the required context to understand what time it took place.
Note that the only difference in the sentences is the time phrase that is included. If it were clear when the event happened, the neutral sentence could be used. However, while Cantonese sentences function in terms of past, present, and future without needing any marking, many will be marked for aspect. top
As some may have noticed, English doesn't stop at past tense (walked), present tense (walk), and future tense (will walk). There's also past perfect (had walked), past progressive (was walking), etc. "Perfect" and "progressive" are not really tenses. These are what are called "aspect," which basically describe the meaning of a verb in time. In Cantonese, aspect is often shown by "aspect markers" which are usually single 'words' that follow directly after the verb (and in a few cases after a word and its object). Below some of the most common aspect markers are explained. top
The "perfect" aspect is very similar to the English use of "had", "has", or "have" and indicates that an action has completed. In Cantonese, /jo/ indicates the perfect. Frequently, students of Cantonese come to think of /jo/ as a "past tense" indicator, and that is often the case, but the present and future can also include the perfect aspect.
There are two other aspect markers that are similar to /jo/- \yuhn\ and saai. These also indicate that an action has completed, but with slightly different meanings. A comparison will be made between these three later on in the lesson.
The "completive" aspect does not match an English aspect function. It is marked in Cantonese by the particle \yuhn\. It is used to show that the one performing an action is done performing an action. The task potentially may not be completed, but the one performing the task has completed all they intend to. Being interrupted or prevented from completing a task would counter-indicate the use of \yuhn\.
\yuhn\ emphasizes the state of the doer of the action and contrasts with saai which emphasizes the state of the object of the verb which is being acted on. Note that \yuhn\ and saai can be considered resultative complements rather than aspect markers, but since they compare and contrast with /jo/ so distinctly, they have been placed here. top
Note that the sentence "/Ngoh/ sihk faahn" is ambiguous as to whether it is referring to a habitual act (as in a response to the question "what do you do at 7pm?") or a declaration of imminent action, and to whether it is referring to past, present, or future. Those details are determined by the context in which it is said.
The Exhaustive 哂
The "exhaustive" aspect does not match an English aspect function. It is marked in Cantonese by the particle saai. Saai is used to show that the an action has been performed to the point that it cannot be continued. The exhaustive aspect particularly references the object of the verb. A person may wish to continue the action and find another object, but the original object of the verb has been used up for the purposes of the action.
saai emphasizes the state of the object of the verb which is being acted on and contrasts with \yuhn\ which emphasizes the state of the doer of the action. Note that \yuhn\ and saai can be considered resultative complements rather than aspect markers, but since they compare and contrast with /jo/ so distinctly, they have been placed here.
The Experiential 過
gwo is called the "experiential" aspect marker because it comments on long term conditions more so than a recent action. It questions whether one has ever had a particular experience or not. A good way to think of gwo is as a check box on a list of life-long goals. Once you have done it, you check it off and it remains checked.
gwo can refer to the past, present, or future, although it is primarily used to refer to a past event. However, it can also reference the time at which something is experienced.
It may help to remember that after an action has completed (/jo/), it thereafter has been experienced (gwo). Therefore, /jo/ can often be used in place of gwo. The reverse is not true. An illustration contrasting the two terms will be given later.
The Progressive 緊
/gan/ is comparable to the "-ing" form of English verbs. It denotes that an action is ongoing. Unlike in English, however, /gan/ is optional. Most often this aspect marker is used for emphasis of the continuance of an action, though it also serves to reduce ambiguity.
Note how in the present the meaning with and without /gan/ is identical. There is a difference, though. /Ngoh/ yih \ga\ sihk /chaang/ (without the progressive aspect) can mean that one is just about to begin eating but have not yet started as well as that one is already in the act, while /gan/ necessarily means the action is already in progress.
Contrasting the Aspect Markers
The different aspect markers can be very similar and it is sometimes difficult to understand their meaning. The examples below should serve to help illustrate the different meanings of the various particles and show their differences.
Some verbs are not very compatible with some aspect markers, particularly in combination with various objects. While grammatically correct, they do not have a logical meaning, or there would have to be very unusual circumstances for there to be a context that would satisfy the meaning of the combination.
Note that in most cases, the /jo/ particle was translated as the simple past tense in English rather than a perfect tense. This is because the present perfect tense in English "to have done something" sounds more like the experiential particle gwo, while the simple past tense indicates the completion of each of the above actions. However, in other time settings, /jo/ will generally be translated as "have, has, or had" instead of the past tense "-ed".
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