The Meanings, Functions and Uses of Cantonese Discourse Particles: A Research Monograph Project with Pedagogical Materials

  • WAKEFIELD, John (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


This proposed study will describe and define the twenty most commonly used Cantonese discourse particles (DPs) in addition to seven already defined in prior research. Which are the most common will be determined quantifiably using naturally-occurring data. The DPs will be defined using a modified version of Besemeres and Wierzbicka’s (2003: 3) “general model for the investigation of discourse markers.” The results of this study, combined with my earlier work, will be submitted for publication as a book. In addition to descriptions and definitions of the DPs, the book will provide examples of each particle’s use within discourse contexts. A free online resource will be created to supplement the book, suggesting how it can be used and providing lesson plans and teaching materials (see the Education Plan) with clips of authentic data (cf. Su and Tao, 2018). This pedagogical resource will benefit both teachers and learners of Cantonese.

The theoretical implications relate to DPs expressing a variety of pragmatic meanings. The sentence-final question DP me1, for example, changes a statement into a question expressing surprise. Its meaning is comparable to a high-rising tone in English: Lei5 zek3 gau2 sei2-zo2 me1? (“Your dog died?!”). This research will expand our knowledge of the semantics of Cantonese DPs, revealing how their meanings overlap with those of the DPs (or intonation) in other languages. This will tell us how languages express speaker beliefs and notions such as epistemic modality and speaker stance, and is an indirect way of helping us understand intonation, a very difficult aspect of language to study (e.g., Ladd, 2008; Wakefield, 2020). This study will significantly increase the number of defined DPs using easy-to-understand definitions, benefiting teachers and learners, as well as linguists who want to make cross- linguistic contrasts.

Societal impact comes from providing a useful resource for Cantonese learners to understand and appropriately use DPs, which are extremely difficult to acquire (Yip & Matthews, 2000) but are nevertheless necessary to learn because of their ubiquitous use in daily conversations. This will especially benefit non-Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong immigrants who need to learn the language well in order to assimilate in society and succeed in the workforce.
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …


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