Cantonese - Verbal Aspect
For those of you that already know some Mandarin, or languages like Vietnamese, Thai, etc., you most likely already know about the concept of verbal aspect. These languages, unlike most Indo-European languages, do not “conjugate” their verbs based on tense, mood, number, person, etc., but use the concept of “aspect” or “time references” to express verbal actions.
Technically, as long as the context is clear from adverbs of time such as “yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow”, then the “tense” can be determined (whether it occurred in the past, present, or future), without having to add anything around the verb.
我今日去香港 [ngo5 gam1 jat6 heoi3 hoeng1 gong2]
I go/am going to Hong Kong today.
我尋日去香港 [ngo5 cam4 jat6 heoi3 hoeng1 gong2]
I went to Hong Kong yesterday.
我聽日去香港 [ngo5 ting1 jat6 heoi3 hoeng1 gong2]
I will go to Hong Kong tomorrow.
However, that being said, oftentimes, these neutral-sounding sentences can sound very stunted and awkward. To make speech more natural, we use aspect markers, which make things clearer and more specific as to when an action occurred.
Past Aspect Markers
咗 zo2 - Perfective Marker
- a common variant of this is 左
- directly equivalent to the perfective function of 了 in Mandarin
- goes after the verb
- shows that an action has been completed in the past, but may be applicable to the present
ex: 我尋晚睇咗兩集。[ngo5 cam4 maan5 tai2 zo2 loeng5 zaap6]
Literal: I yesterday night watch-perf. two episode.
Translation: I watched two episodes last night.
ex: 佢已經喺香港住咗兩年。[keoi5 ji5 ging1 hai2 hoeng1 gong2 zyu6 zo2 loeng5 nin4]
Literal: He/she already in/at Hong Kong live-perf. two year(s).
Translation: He/she has already lived in Hong Kong for two years. (and is still living there now)
過 gwo3 - Experiential Past Marker
- used exactly the same as in Mandarin
- goes after the verb
- shows that something has occurred sometime in the past, and is no longer applicable to the present
ex: 小明曾經去過呢間學校。[siu2 ming4 cang4 ging1 heoi3 gwo3 ni1 gaan1 hok6 haau6]
Literal: Siu Ming at one point go-exp.past this school.
Translation: Siu Ming had gone to this school at one point. (he no longer goes to this school)
ex: 你食過菠蘿包未呀? [nei5 sik6 gwo3 bo1 lo4 baau1 mei6 aa3]
Literal: You eat-exp.past pineapple bun (not) yet + statement particle
Translation: Have you ever eaten pineapple buns?
Present Aspect Markers
The simple present is often expressed using just the verb, without the addition of any aspect markers. However, present aspect markers exist to mark time points more clearly.
緊 gan2 - Progressive Marker
- equivalent to (正)在 + V in Mandarin, except 緊 goes after the verb
- functions as the imperfective, or the present progressive; an action is incomplete and/or in progress.
ex: 當時佢仲寫緊本書，所以冇時間陪我。[dong1 si4 keoi5 zung6 se2 gan2 bun2 syu1, so2 ji3 mou5 si4 gaan3 pui4 ngo5]
Mandarin: 當時他/她還在寫 (那本) 書，所以沒有時間陪我。
Literal: At that time he still write-prog. classifier book, so/that’s why not have time accompany me.
Translation: At that time he was still writing the book; that’s why he didn’t have time to spend with me.
ex: 我食緊飯嘅時候唔好同我傾偈。[ngo5 sik6 gan2 faan6 ge3 si4 hau6 m4 hou2 tung4 ngo5 king1 gai2]
Literal: I eat-prog. genitive (duration of) time not good* with me chat.
Translation: When I’m (busy) eating (a meal), don’t chit chat with me.
*唔好 m4 hou2 (lit. not good) = an imperative form, equivalent to don’t in English and 不要 in Mandarin
住 zyu6 - Durative Marker
- expresses an action that continues and remains in the same state
- connects two verbal phrases where actions are being done simultaneously
- Function 1: equivalent to 着 in Mandarin; goes after the verb
- Function 2: equivalent to 邊…邊… in Mandarin; goes after the verb
ex: 佢孭住一個好重嘅書包。[keoi5 me1 zyu6 jat1 go3 hou2 cung5 ge3 syu1 baau1]
Literal: He/she carry (on one’s back)-dur. one classifier very heavy backpack.
Translation: He/she is carrying a very heavy backpack.
ex: 家姐間房對住個海。[gaa1 ze1 gaan1 fong2 deoi3 zyu6 go3 hoi2]
Literal: Older sister-gen. room face-dur. classifier ocean
Translation: [Older] sis’ room faces the ocean. (it is always going to be facing the ocean).
This function cannot stand on its own with just a verbal phrase, and requires the addition of 先 sin1 “first, before anything else”, or another verb/verbal phrase. The structure 一路…一路… can also be used, and is used in almost exactly the same way as (一)邊…(一)邊… in Mandarin.
ex: 你食住飯先。[nei5 sik6 zyu6 faan6 sin1] (simply saying 你食住飯 would be grammatically incorrect)
Literal: You eat-dur. meal first.
Translation: Eat first. (implies that the speaker might be doing an action other than eating, and asks the listener to eat first)
ex: 我食住雪條行街。[ngo5 sik6 zyu6 syut3 tiu2 haang4 gaai1] or
我一路食住雪條(一路)行街。[ngo5 jat1 lou6 sik6 zyu6 syut3 tiu2 (jat1 lou6) haang4 gaai1]
Literal: I eat-dur. popsicle stroll. or I (as) eat-dur. popsicle (as) stroll.
Translation: I am (or I was) eating a popsicle as I stroll (or was strolling) around.
Difference between 緊 gan2 and 住 zyu6
The words present progressive and durative sound very technical and also sound pretty similar in meaning, but here’s a good example illustrating the difference between the two markers:
我著緊衫 [ngo5 zoek3 gan2 saam1] - I am putting on clothes. (lit. in the process of wearing/putting on clothes)
我著住衫 [ngo5 zoek3 zyu6 saam1] - I am wearing clothes. (I am in a state where I am wearing clothes)
著 [zoek3] - to wear sth; 衫 [saam1] - clothes