My Particle Theory

By far the cutest thing about the way Chinese people talk is all the ahs and lahs, the sais and mas, that I’ve been told over and over again by locals have “no meaning.”  If pressed further, these locals will tell you (or really they will just agree with you if you propose the idea) that these particles add emotional meaning to the sentences they complete, and wikipedia agrees.  They are spoken punctuation, spoken emoticons.  Until the other day, when I discovered my particle theory, this was about as far as I got in figuring out why Canto is so particle-rich while English is so particle-poor.

You know how sarcasm and other subtleties that are so easy to express in speech fall flat in text?  Emoticons solve that problem.  But what if all that tone-of-voice stuff we use to express things like sarcasm, or soften our statements, make them more polite, clarify that they were said in jest, etc., what if all that stuff had the potential to change the semantic meaning of the words we use?  In tonal languages, tones change the meaning of sounds, make them different words, as any Westerner who has ever tried to say the number 9 in Canto knows all too well.  (Digression I can’t resist sharing: I once tried to use sarcasm in Cantonese when people were acting ridiculously afraid of the dog I was walking.  I tried to say “It’s a dog, not a tiger,” but ended up saying, “It’s a penis, not an old lady.”  How many tones does Canto have?  Penis.  Diu 😉

Ergo, because Cantonese uses tones for semantic content, they are less available for expressing emotional content.  But as the email/texting revolution has taught us, that emotional content must be expressed in normal day-to-day communications; in many instances it’s more important than the semantic content of our words.  So Canto evolved a solution: lots of spoken emoticons, called particles, liberally and adorably used.