It can do me1 (‘what’)?” — On the development of a Cantonese interrogative pronoun into a negative stance marker

Winnie Chor*, Marvin Lam

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Based on data obtained from Cantonese corpora and interactions in everyday contexts, this paper identifies and analyzes the range of pragmatic functions that the interrogative pronoun me1 has. Focusing on the subjective evaluative functions of me1 that go beyond interrogation, this present study attempts to suggest the development pathway of me1 becoming a negative stance marker. Derived from combining the interrogative pronoun mat1 ‘what’ and the general noun je5 ‘thing’ followed by phonological reduction, it is observed that me1 (<mat1je5) has gone a long way, from replacing an item of enquiry, to substituting for an unretrievable or unutterable item to avoid taboo and embarrassment, and further to a negative evaluative attitudinal marker that can occupy a range of syntactic positions (including the pre-nominal and clause-initial positions) to signal the speaker's disagreement and derogatory attitude, and finally to become an interrogative sentence-final particle which is essentially subjective and negatively biased. Adopting a broadly interactional linguistic perspective (Ochs et al., 1996; Selting and Couper-Kuhlen, 2001), our present study looks at how me1 can be used to negotiate interpersonal functions in the course of conversational interactions. Findings in this paper will have significant contributions to the study of wh-markers generally, and provide important insights into how extended functions of wh-markers can be developed in Sinitic languages specifically.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)68-78
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023

User-Defined Keywords

  • Cantonese mat1/me1
  • Placeholder
  • Whatchamacallit
  • Subjectification
  • Stance-marking


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