A sketch of Southern Min grammar
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
Prepublication version of :
Southern Min. In Alice Vittrant & Justin Watkins (eds.) The Mainland Southeast Asia
linguistic area. (Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 314) Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter, pp. 176-233. (2018)
Southern Min is a major Chinese language of wider communication in many countries of
Southeast Asia with a conservative estimate of seven million speakers in this region, the result
of a gradual, centuries-long diaspora from China.1 This estimate includes the three main
varieties of Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese.
Historically, the core of the Min languages is located in modern day Fujian, a coastal
province in the southeast of China. It represents one of the ten branches of the Sinitic taxon
within the Sino-Tibetan language family, and accounts for approximately 4%–5% of Sinitic
speakers in China, that is, approximately 52 million speakers (Zhang 2012). Southern Min, is
in fact, the largest and most widely distributed subgroup of dialects within the Min
supergroup, as it is known, extending south into Guangdong province, and over the straits to
Taiwan. There are 27 million speakers of varieties of Southern Min on the mainland and a
further 15 million in Taiwan.
In Southeast Asia, sizeable communities of the three main varieties of Southern Min
speakers are located principally in the countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia,
and the Philippines. Hokkien or Fújiànhuà 福建话 has traditionally been the main overseas
Chinese language in all these countries, except for Thailand, where the Chaozhou 潮州 or
Teochew speakers predominate, reportedly making up more than 80% of the Chinese
In this chapter, we thus present an overview of the main features of the grammar of
Hokkien, focusing on aspects of its phonology, morphology and syntax which are distinct
from standard Mandarin, while highlighting features that it shares with other languages of the
Southeast Asian area.
Demography of Southern Min speakers
In China, Southern Min is largely spoken in the region of Zhangzhou 漳州, Quanzhou
泉州 and Xiamen 厦门 along a coastal strip in the south of Fujian province. Over the border
from the Min homeland, two important dialects of the Southern Min subgroup are found in
northeastern Guangdong, these being Shantou 汕頭 (Swatow) and Chaozhou 潮州
(Teochew), communities which live in close proximity to varieties of Hakka and Cantonese.3
Large communities of Min speakers are also found as far south as the Leizhou
peninsula 雷州半島 in southern Guangdong and on Hainan Island 海南島, a province thirty
kilometres off the southeastern coast of China. Here they live side by side with the Li and the
Yao peoples, speakers of non-Sinitic languages belonging respectively to the Kra-Dai and
Hmong-Mien families. On the basis of dynastic records, the forebears of these two outlier
communities forming the Leiqiong subgroup, are believed to have come mainly from Putian
2 Hilary Chappell
county in northern Fujian, beginning in the period of the late Song and early Yuan, that is,
from the 13th century (Li & Yao 2008).
Across the Taiwan Strait from Fujian province, Southern Min flourishes as the first
language of the majority of the population with approximately 15 million speakers (67% of
the population of 22 million) (S. Huang 1993, Simons & Fennig 2017). The variety of
Taiwanese Southern Min has evolved from a fusion and neutralization of the dialects spoken
in Zhangzhou and Quanzhou and consequently belongs to the Quanzhang subgroup.
Migrations began in the early 17th century from these two prefectural towns in southern
Fujian province to the island of Formosa, as it was first named by the Portuguese, as well as
to many neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the Hokkien or Quanzhang
subgroup (泉漳片) of Southern Min is spoken by Chinese communities living in particularly
Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia and the Philippines.4 In Vietnam, Laos
and Myanmar, smaller communities of Chinese speak varieties of Mandarin and Yue.
The Min group is a very diverse group of dialects whose subdivisions are generally not
mutually intelligible. For example, speakers of the Fuzhou dialect in northern Fujian cannot
converse easily with speakers of the Chaozhou dialect in the south, or even Putian speakers
with their distant relatives in Hainan. Min is reputed to be the most highly divergent group
within Sinitic. Fujian province was, in fact, one of the last to be completely colonized and
settled by the Han people in the 7th century. It remained for many centuries one of the most
geographically inaccessible areas of China with its high mountain ranges and few major rivers
suited to the typical north-to-south migration pattern in China’s history. In the view of
Norman (1988), this may partially explain the heterogeneous nature of the Min dialect group.5
In Chinese dialectology, the traditional division of Min dialects has been into Northern
and Southern types (Yuan Jiahua et al, 1960). The Fuzhou 福州 dialect was generally used as
the representative dialect for Northern Min while the Xiamen 廈門 or Amoy dialect was used
for Southern Min. More recently, Jerry Norman proposed a new primary division into Inland
(or Western) Min and Coastal (or Eastern) Min (see Norman 1988, 1991, You 1992, Wurm et
al 1987: Map B12). Inland Min comprises the three subgroups of Northwestern and Far
Western on the one hand, and Central on the other, which correspond in fact to the two main
routes of migration taken in the third century AD, from Jiangxi in the west and Zhejiang in
the north (Bielenstein 1959, Chappell 2001a). In chronological terms, the formation of
Coastal Min also neatly matches the seventh century migration down the coast from these
same two provinces and incorporates Northeastern dialects such as Fuzhou and Southern
dialects such as Xiamen and Teochew. To this classification, for the historical reasons
adumbrated above, we need to add a separate subgroup for the Min dialects spoken on Hainan
Island and the Leizhou peninsula, due to their evolution in isolation from the rest of Min. The
list below includes some representative varieties for each subgroup.
(i) Inland Min
a. Northwestern: Jian dialects 建
b. Far Western: Shaowu 邵武, Jingle 靜樂
c. Central: Yong’an 永安
(ii) Coastal Min
a. Northeastern: Fuzhou 福州, Fu’an 福安
b. Puxian: Putian 莆田
c. Southern: Xiamen 廈門(Amoy), Taiwanese 台語, Zhangzhou 漳州, Quanzhou 泉州,
Chaozhou (Teochew) 潮州, Shantou 汕頭 (Swatow)
3 Southern Min
(iii) Leiqiong 雷瓊
a. Dialects of the Leizhou peninsula 雷州話
b. Hainanese 海南話
Literary versus colloquial registers
Within Sinitic, the Min dialects stand out for the striking contrast between literary and
colloquial pronunciations of words, known as wén-bái yì-dú 文白異讀 in Mandarin. The
literary or reading pronunciation tends to be closer to that in Mandarin, reflecting earlier
diglossia with the language of the imperial court as the ‘High’ language. For example, the
character 行 has the literary reading /hing5/ and the colloquial reading /kian5/, pronunciations
which are realized according to function: /hing5/ is used in the more elevated literary lexicon
for abstract words such as 行为 /hing5 ui5/ ‘behaviour’ and 行动 /hing5 tong 7/ ‘deeds, action’
while /kian5/ is used in its colloquial and concrete sense of ‘to walk’ (Yang 1991: 10-14; 118-
134). For the contemporary language, the different pronunciations cannot in fact be explained
simply as two different stylistic levels used in different contexts but reshape the entire
lexicon, due to their function in distinguishing senses of the same word and in creating
families of words and compounds. The historical reason for these chronological strata in the
Min dialects is treated in Mei & Yang (1995), while certain of the synchronic outcomes for
the lexicon are discussed in Lien (2001) in terms of the interaction between the two types of
This description of Southern Min uses Taiwanese as the representative variety with
examples transcribed in the revised Church Romanization, in wide use in Taiwanese linguistic
Popular literature and historical documents concerning the Southern Min language
Documents written in Min go back to at least the sixteenth century and include many different
local styles of opera including the southern style or nányīn南音 opera, songs, and Taoist
liturgical material. For Southern Min, an important work is the popular Ming dynasty (1368–
1644) play, the Li Jing Ji 荔鏡記 (Romance of the Litchi and Mirror, 1566), written in a
mixture of the Quanzhou and Chaozhou dialects. These make use of the specially created
demotic characters for Southern Min words for which a standard Chinese character does not
exist, for example, 勿會boe7 ‘cannot’; 亻因in1 3PL ‘they’.7
Other pedagogical and religious materials from the same period have been traced to the
Philippines, and even to Spain. These include a translation into Southern Min from Spanish of
a Catholic catechism, Doctrina Christiana en letra y lengua china (1597–1605), two Southern
Min–Spanish dictionaries, Dictionarium Sino-Hispanicum (Chinese-Spanish Dictionary)(c.
1604) and Bocabulario de la lengua sangleya (Lexicon of the Sangley Language) (c. 1617),
not to mention an early grammar of the Southern Min dialect of Zhangzhou, Arte de la lengua
chiõ-chiu (Grammar of the Chiõ Chiu language) (1620). These were all compiled and written
by Spanish missionaries in collaboration with native speakers in Manila and Cebu where
Chinese communities had been set up in the wake of established trade routes between
southern Fujian and the Philippines.8 The term ‘Sangley’ refers in fact to these Hokkien
Chinese traders in the Philippines and is likely related to the Southern Min word which means
Southern Min is an exclusively tonal language, without the use of any register differences.9 It
exhibits a complex system of tone sandhi, based on its seven citation tones. For a Chinese
4 Hilary Chappell
language, it possesses a reasonably standard size inventory of 18 consonants, two semi-
vowels and six cardinal vowels which combine to form the syllable rhymes of Southern Min
including eight diphthongs and two triphthongs (see Tables 2 and 3 below). Its inventory of
syllables is quite expansive with over 2,200 combinations compared with standard Mandarin,
which has approximately 1,100 different syllable types (Cheng 1997: 93). As for most Sinitic
languages, Southern Min does not permit any consonant clusters in syllable-initial position,
while it has a restricted set of consonants permitted in syllable-final position.
Min dialects show the main division common to the consonant inventory in most Sinitic
languages of an aspirated versus unaspirated distinction for obstruents. Strikingly, however,
Min dialects also possess a voiced series of stops that occur in syllable-initial position, having
evolved from an earlier series of nasal phonemes. Admittedly, there is also a voiced series of
initial consonants in many Wu and Xiang dialects. In the Wu dialects, this may only be
realized intervocalically in Shanghainese, for example, but murmured in syllable-initial
1.1. Suprasegmental phonology: tone and register
While phonation types are not recognized for Min dialects, in contrast to this, tone sandhi or
tone change is a complex and well-known feature of the entire Min supergroup of dialects.10
Thus, in Southern Min, each syllable can be realized in its citation tone and in a sandhi (or
changed) tone. The citation tone, also known as its ‘isolation’ tone refers to the pronunciation
of any stressed syllable preceding a pause, such as at the end of a tone group, or in a position
before a following unstressed syllable. Table 1 uses the traditional classification system for
Chinese tones into four categories and two registers, upper and lower (which, however, we
note, no longer function as true register differences).
The four categories of tones are known as píngshēng 平聲 ‘level tone’, shăngshēng 上
聲 ‘ascending tone’, qùshēng 去聲 ‘departing tone’ and rùshēng 入聲 ‘entering tone’. Due to
tone merger, there is no lower register tone value for the Ascending Tone, that is, there is no
Tone 6. Tone values are a case of relative pitch, and subject to both dialectal and individual
speaker variation. The entering tone tends to be a clipped tone of short duration in most
Sinitic languages, due to the fact that it occurs largely in closed syllables with the plosive
codas: -p, -t, -k or -Ɂ. To represent the relevant pitch values, Yuen Ren Chao’s scale from the
lowest value, 1, to the highest, 5 is used in this description of Hokkien, while the transcription
known as the modified Church Romanization has been adopted. The tone sandhi values are
given in italic numbers to the right of the citation values, and, in general, will not be given in
the transcription of examples used in the present description.11 See also Lin (2015:68-80) on
Table 1: Tone inventory of Southern Min
Level tone 平聲
Ascending tone 上聲
Departing tone 去聲
Entering tone 入聲
Tone 1 陰平
Tone 2 陰上
Tone 3 陰去
Tone 4 陰入
High level 55 33
High falling 51 55
Low falling 21 51
Low checked 2 5
Tone 5 陽平
Tone 7 陽去
Tone 8 陽入
Mid rising 25 21/33
Low level 33 21
High checked 5 2
Tone sandhi rules in Southern Min have been described in terms of a tone cycle by Robert
Cheng (1972). For tones in the non-checked syllables, a cyclic effect is produced whereby the
High Falling Tone (陰上 51) changes to the same pitch value as High Level (陰平 55); High
Level Tone (陰平 55) changes to Low Level Tone (陽去 33), the Low Level tone (陽去 33)
changes to Low Falling (陰去 21) and Low Falling Tone (陰去 21) changes to High Falling
5 Southern Min
(陰上 51), thereby completing the cycle. The two checked or entering tones also perform a
similar kind of flip-flop: High Checked (陽入 5) becomes Low Checked (陰入 2) and vice-
versa. Finally, the Mid Rising tone (陽平 25) changes to a low tone: either Low Falling (陰去
21) or Low Level (陽去 33). In Southern Min, syllables with the neutral or unstressed tone
are less common compared with standard Mandarin Chinese where the phenomenon is
widespread, that is, the loss of the full tonal value on unstressed syllables in compound words,
in addition to affixes and clitic-like elements.
A paradigm of tonal syllables in reading pronunciation is next presented, according to the
Tone 1: su55 私 ‘secret’ Tone 5: su25 詞 ‘an expression’
Tone 2: su51 使 ‘to cause’ Tone 7: su33 事 ‘business’
Tone 3: su21 思 ‘be anxious’
Tone 4: sut2 率 ‘to lead’
Tone 8: sut5 述 ‘to recite’
1.2. Segmental phonemes : consonants and vowels
1.2.1. Initial and final consonant patterns
There are 18 consonants and two semi-vowels in Southern Min which are characterized by
aspiration and voicing. While the nasal consonants, /m/ and /ŋ/ may act as syllables,
consonant clusters in either initial or final position are not permitted, at least at the level of the
syllable. While all consonants may occur in syllable-initial position, syllable-final position is
restricted to the nasals /m n ŋ/, the voiceless unaspirated plosives /p t k/ and the glottal stop
There are two series of obstruents comprising plosives, fricatives and affricates: (1) a
voiceless series, and (2) a voiced series. In addition to this, there is a contrast in aspiration in
the voiceless series: the unaspirated class (p, t, k, ʔ, ts) and the aspirated class (ph, th, kh, tsh).
Voiced series of obstruents are uncommon in Sinitic languages. Notwithstanding this, through
a process of denasalization, Southern Min has acquired a voiced series (b, l, g) noting that in
Southern Min, the phoneme /l/ has an apical place of articulation, close to /d/ (Zhou 1991:13-
14). In some dialects, there is also free variation for the phoneme /dz/ with /l/, for example,
the word for ‘day’ 日may be pronounced as jit8 [dzit8] or lit8. The Xiamen or Amoy variety
only has /l/, as is also the case in Quanzhou (Zhou 1991:14, Yang 1991:25).
Table 2: Consonants of Taiwanese Southern Min
6 Hilary Chappell
The voiced series of plosives is in partial complementary distribution with their
homorganic nasals in Southern Min. Synchronically, /b/, /l/ and /g/ are realized as their nasal
allophones, /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/, respectively, when they occur in the initial position of syllables
with the nasalized finals -in, -an, -ɔn, -ian, -iun, ain, -aun, -uan, uin etc. Some examples are (i)
/bian5/ 名 ‘name’ which is realized phonetically as [mian5], (ii) /liun5 / 娘 ‘woman’ which is
realized phonetically as [niun5] and (iii) /gin7/ 硬 ‘hard’ which is realized phonetically as
[ŋin7] (see Yang 1991: 26-27, Zhou 1991: 31 for more examples).1 Historically, under certain
conditions, the three nasal phonemes in Southern Min /m n ŋ/ all lost their nasality in initial
position, producing /b l g/ (Zhou 1991: 14, 31, Baxter & Sagart 2014:92ff). Examples of
words that have voiced plosives or the voiced lateral initial in combination with non-nasalized
syllable rhymes are [be2] 馬 ‘horse’, [lam5] 南 ‘south’ and [go5] 鵝‘goose’.
1.2.2. Vowel patterns
In Southern Min, there are basically six vowels, with much dialectal variation, it should be
added.12 Vowels can be classified as either: (1) monophthongs (single vowels), or (2)
diphthongs. In addition to this basic division, Southern Min also possesses two triphthongs.
Table 3: Monophthongs of Southern Min
There are eight diphthongs possible in Southern Min, formed by combinations of the medial
vowels and offglides /i/ and /u/ with 5 of the cardinal vowels. Only the open-mid back vowel
/ɔ/ does not participate in such combinations:
Table 4: Inventory of diphthongs and triphthongs in Southern Min
There are also two triphthongs: these are –iau and –uai, as observable in the last two columns
of Table 4. For an in-depth treatment of Southern Min phonology, see Cheng (1972), Zhou
(1991) and Yang (1991).
1.3. Syllable structure:
According to traditional Chinese phonology, the structure of each syllable consists of two
parts: an initial and a final. The final is composed of a medial and a rhyme, while the rhyme is
further divided into a nucleus and a coda. We can represent this by the following diagram:
1 Here an implicit reference to the literary pronunciation and the reconstructed forms is being made by Yang
(1991). For more details of the development of the nasal and plosive series of initial consonants, see Baxter &
7 Southern Min
Table 5 : Syllable structure in Southern Min
Except for the nucleus, there is no obligatory element in the syllable, nor is there any
restriction on consonants that occupy the initial position, apart from the impossibility of
voiced stops to co-occur with nasalized finals. The glottal stop is not, however, phonemically
distinct in this position. Bilabial and velar nasals may be syllabic, as in /m7/ 伓 ‘not want’ and
/ŋ5/黃 ‘yellow’ or act as finals, as in /hm5 / 媒 ‘matchmaker’ and /mŋ 7/ 問 ‘to ask’. As
mentioned earlier, the coda position allows the three nasals /m n ŋ/, as well as the voiceless
unaspirated plosives /p t k/ and /ʔ/.
Southern Min does not possess sesquisyllables in the sense of Matisoff (1991), although
a small number of subsyllables can be recognized (R. Cheng 1997). Affixes and the
allomorphy in which they take part are discussed in §2.1.2.
Fusion of grammatical and derivational morphemes is a common process in Min dialects,
evident for the plural forms of the personal pronouns (§2.1.1), many negated forms of modal
verbs (§3.4), and prepositional markers when followed by generic and third person pronouns :
ka7 + i1 共伊à kai1 OM-3SG ‘3rd person fused form of object marker ; ‘her, him, it, them’;
hoo7 + lang5 與 儂 à hong5 PASS-GENERIC PRONOUN ‘by someone’. More examples may be
found in Huang (1988) and Lin (2015:399).
The diminutive suffix and nominal marker –a2 仔 (< kian2 囝 ‘child’) exhibits a diverse
array of morphophonemic alternations which can in the main be neatly accounted for by four
simple rules according to Lien (1998). Given that there is just a restricted number of
possibilities for syllable codas in Southern Min, namely /p t k Ɂ m n ŋ/ or else a vowel
nucleus, the following processes take place. First, in a process of gemination, the coda of the
first syllable, is copied onto the suffix –a2 and then voiced in the case of the finals /p t k/.13
This copied element consequently becomes the initial consonant of the newly created suffix.
Second, only in the case of voiceless codas, and by means of regressive assimilation, the
original /p t k/ coda of the first syllable also takes on the voicing feature (see examples 1,2,3
in Table 6).
Third, for root syllables with nasal codas or nasalized vowel nucleii /m n ŋ Vn/, after
their gemination, the nominal suffix –a2 is nasalized to –ã2 in a process of progressive
assimilation (examples 4,5,6,7). Fourth, for open syllables and for syllables with a glottal stop
final, the resultant form simply preserves the underlying or overt suprasegmental glottal
feature: V+a(Ɂ) à V+aɁ (8,9). Table 6 illustrates these processes.
Table 6: Morphophonemic alternations for the nominal suffix –a2 in Southern Min
(adapted from Lien 1998: 475)
8 Hilary Chappell
‘meat ball (in
Furthermore, as Wang and Lien (1993) and Lien (1998:476-477) both observe, after the
general rules for tone sandhi have been applied, as explained in §1.1 above, a second special
set of tone sandhi for diminutive suffixation goes into action. Essentially, while the
diminutive suffix remains invariant as Tone 2, that is, High Falling (51) after the first stage
has taken place, a low- (21) or mid-tone (33) first syllable becomes a rising tone (25 or 35),
and a high tone syllable (High Level 55, High Falling 51, High Checked 5), remains high with
a 55 pitch. Note that, in the case of person’s names taking the –a suffix, a completely different
set of rules is followed for tone sandhi (Lien 1998:475).
The semantics of the diminutive suffix is discussed in §18.104.22.168.
2.1. Word structure
In overall terms of its typology, Southern Min appears to behave like Sinitic languages
in general, being analytic in tendency. Thus, it does not possess inflectional paradigms for
case, gender, tense, number or person. Nonetheless, it also shows agglutinative features,
including a substantial inventory of affixes and clitics used on nouns and verbs, a proclivity
for compounding and reduplication, but also a propensity for fusion through syllable
contraction. Case roles are coded by adpositions.
Structurally speaking, there are many word types, starting with words constituted of a
simple monomorphemic monosyllable and moving through combinations of root + affix to
polysyllabic compounds and reduplicated forms. Fusional features are represented by the
contraction of words, particularly the high frequency markers of grammatical function (see
§1.4 above and the sections on negation, passives and object-marking) while assimilation of
phonetic features at syllable edges results in complex allomorphy, as we saw in the case of the
diminutive suffix –a2仔, discussed in §1.4.
2.1.1. Nominal categories: coding of case, gender, number
Case, gender and number are not marked inflectionally in Southern Min, nor in Sinitic as a
whole. Apart from the use of syntactic position in the clause to indicate the role of a noun
phrase referent, for example, as subject or direct object of the verb, other means to code such
roles require the use of prepositions to designate case relations, for example, hoo7 與 to mark
oblique roles including indirect objects, but also the agent noun in passive constructions, and
either chiong1 將or ka7 共to mark direct objects that precede the main predicate.
The category of gender is lexically coded for a subset of animate nouns (domestic
animals, fowl) by means of the suffix –kang1 公for male of the species and suffix –bu2母for
a reproductive female of the species: ti1–kang1 豬公 ‘boar’, ti1–bu2 豬母 ‘a sow that has
produced a litter’. This is an interesting distinction from standard Mandarin which makes use
of prefixes in this function.
9 Southern Min
Number can also be explicitly coded by means of plural classifiers such as koa2 in
chit8 koa2 lang5 一寡儂 one-CLPL-people ‘some people’ or by plural adverbs such as long2攏
‘all’. The plural pronouns all end in suffix –n which represents a trace of lang5儂‘person,
people’ according to Mei Tsu-lin (1999), who observes that the evidence is found in the fact
that the full form is used in other Min dialects as the plural suffix. Note that this does not
occur elsewhere in the lexicon as a plural marker on common nouns. There is also an
inclusive–exclusive distinction for first person plural. Compare the singular and plural forms
in the Southern Min pronominal paradigm:
Table 7: Personal pronouns of Southern Min ( Taiwan)
The reflexive form is ka1ki7家己 ‘self’ while the generic pronoun ‘one’ is lang5儂 < ‘person’.
From Table 7, it can be observed that there is no polite form for the 2nd person pronoun, as
found in Mandarin which uses the opposition of nĭ你 2SG versus nín 您 2SG:POL. Politeness
is lexically expressed in Southern Min with forms coding respect. These may include kin
terms involving an age hierarchy: for example, younger versus older brothers, sisters, aunts
and uncles; or titles of professions as a vocative form of direct address. These forms are either
politer or more culturally-appropriate than using the person’s name or a pronoun on its own.
The polite classifier ui7 位may be used instead of the general classifer e5 個 with human
nouns. Along this conceptual dimension, Southern Min does not differ from other Sinitic
Plural forms of the personal pronouns tend to be used in zero-marked genitive noun
phrases, even where only one person is involved as the possessor. This could be viewed as a
‘sociative’ kind of pronominal marking since relations within a family are not viewed
individualistically as one-to-one between parents and children but rather, shared, as part of the
goa2 siun2 beh4 kin3 gun3 a2-kung1.
1SG think want see 1PL PREF.-grandfather
‘I want to see my grandfather.’ (literally: our grandfather’)
2.1.2. Derivational morphology
Derivation in Southern Min essentially involves the process of affixation whereby a prefix or
a suffix is attached to the root, or more rarely, the insertion of an infix. Suffixing
predominates as the main strategy in derivational morphology.
22.214.171.124. Prefixes in Southern Min
The main prefix in Southern Min is used on kin terms and given names as a hypocoristic
(2) a1- 阿 as a hypocoristic prefix on kin terms and given names:
a1-ma2 阿媽 ‘grandma’, a1-i5 阿姨 ‘aunty’,
10 Hilary Chappell
a1-khing3 阿慶 (affixed to the syllable for the second character in a person’s given
126.96.36.199. Suffixes in Southern Min
Many of the suffixes used in Southern Min have a quite specific nominalising function to
denote different kinds of persons, occupations and professions. These are the suffixes –e 的,
–thau5頭 < ‘head’, –sai1(hu) 師(傅)< ‘master’ (colloquial register) or –su1師 < ‘master’
(literary register), jin5 人< ‘person’ (literary register), lang5儂 < ‘person’ (colloquial
register), –sien1先 < ‘sir’, –sien1 <仙 ‘immortal’ and –kui2鬼 < ‘demon’. Five of these are
described and illustrated below:
1. The nominalising suffix –e 的in Southern Min may be attached to simple verbs,
compound verbs and even clauses. It serves to convert these phrases into nominals, a feature
which is widespread in Southeast Asian languages for this type of particle that typically
possesses genitive, relative clause and other modifying functions as well (Matisoff 1986b).
The nominalizer –e 的 in combination with a verb (or a clause) could thus be translated
approximately as ‘the one who + VERBs’ or ‘that which + VERBs’:
(3) i. Simple verb + –e 的
chiah8-e 食的 ‘what is eaten’, chhing1 e 穿的 ‘what is worn’
ii. V-O verb compound + –e 的
liah8 hi5–e 掠魚的 ‘fisherman’ (catch-fish-suffix), phoa3 pin7–e 破病的 ‘sick person’
iii. Clause + –e 的
thau5 mng5 tng5 e頭毛長的 hair-be.long-suffix ‘the long-haired one’
It may also be used as a suffix to form a respectful term of address, as Ong5-e 王的 ‘Mr
2. Suffix –thau5頭 < ‘head’
This suffix is a pure nominal marker and, interestingly, covers a largely different set of nouns
from its Mandarin cognate, tóu [thoʊ35] (Cheng 1997: 92).
(4) jit8-thau5 日頭 ‘sun’, chioh8-thau5 石頭 ‘stone’, lo5–thau5 路頭 ‘journey’, hoe3–thau5 歲
3. Suffixes –sai1(hu) 師(傅and su1师
Lien (2001) has argued for the complementary distribution of such pairs of suffixes arguing
that colloquial register –sai1(hu) forms agentive nouns for crafts and trades while literary
register su1 forms agentive nouns for professions that require more intellectual skills :
Although the cognate shīfu 師傅 ‘master’ exists in Mandarin, it is not used as a suffix.
(5) –sai1(hu) 師(傅): thou5chui2-sai1 塗水師 ‘bricklayer’, iu5chhat4-sai1hu 油漆師傅
‘painter (of buildings)’, bak4-chhiun7-sai1hu 木匠师傅 ‘carpenter’
–su1 師: i1-su1 醫師 ‘doctor’, ui7-su1 畫師 ‘artist’, kau3-su1 ‘teacher’
4. Suffix –sien1仙 < ‘immortal’, ‘adept’; suffix for professions; suffix for addicts of various
vices (humorous). The lexeme sien1仙is similarly not used as a suffix in Mandarin.
11 Southern Min
(6) siao3kui7sien1 數櫃仙 ‘book-keeper’, kun5thau2-sien1 拳頭仙 ‘boxer’
sio1-chiu2 sien1燒酒仙 ‘drunkard’, a1-phien2 sien1 鴉片仙 ‘opium smoker’, poah8kiao2
sien1 博繳仙 ‘gambler’, thit4-thou5-sien1囗囗仙 ‘an idler’
5. In Taiwanese Southern Min, the diminutive formed with the suffix -a2仔 can be
diachronically related to the lexeme for ‘son, child’, kian2 囝, in contemporary Taiwanese
and Xiamen (Amoy), albeit in a much reduced form (Yang 1991, Chappell 2000).14 From
the expressive, diminutive usage, the suffix further evolves into a nominalizer and then
into a simple marker of nominals. Some further examples of the broad range of usages of –
a2 in contemporary Southern Min are given below. (See also §1.4 on the morphophonemic
alternations and special tone sandhi pertaining to this suffix).
There are three main functions of -a2仔as a suffix:
(7) Non-productive use as a diminutive marker for smaller versions of objects (=
fossilized invariant use): thng5-a2 糖仔 ‘candy’ (< thng5 糖‘sugar’), chhia1-a2 車仔
‘sewing machine’ (< chhia1 ‘vehicle’ 車); liap8-a2 ‘ulcer’ 瘡仔 (< liap8 ‘grain’ 粒)
Deverbal nouns: that4 塞 ‘to fill, plug (Verb)’ → that4-a2 塞仔‘stopper, cork’
Occupations: thai5-ti1-a2治豬仔 slaughter-pig-suffix ‘butcher’; poan1hi3-a2
搬戯仔 act-play-suffix ‘actor’
(9) Noun marker
hi5-a2 魚仔 ‘fish’, chiao2-a2 鳥仔 ‘bird’; tiu7-a2稻仔 ‘rice plant, paddy’
More examples can be found in Table 6 above.
2.1.3. Compounding processes in Southern Min
Compounding is an important process in Southern Min for producing new disyllabic and
polysyllabic word forms. Compounds may be created from combinations of bound and free
roots which hold a variety of semantic relationships to one another, including coordination,
subordination, verb-object and subject-verb relationships. In their turn, coordinate compounds
may be composed of either synonyms or antonyms.
a. Coordinate compounds : sio1loah8 燒熱 hot+hot ‘hot’ hoan5lo2 煩惱
troubled+anxious ‘anxious’ hian1ti7 兄弟 older brother+younger brother
b. Subordinate compounds : toa7lang5 大人 big+person ‘adult’, kiam5lng7 鹹卵
salt+egg ‘salted egg’, tian7hue2 電火 electric+fire ‘lamp’
c. Subject-verb compounds : te7tang7 地動 (earth+move) ‘earthquake’ ,
cheng5goan7 情願 feeling+be:willing ‘be willing to’
d. Verb-object compounds : thai5thau5治頭 cut:off head ‘behead’ ; sng3bian3 算命
tell-fate ‘to tell someone’s fortune’; pin7 kian2 病囝 fall:ill child ‘fall pregnant’
Southern Min is no different from other Sinitic and Southeast Asian languages in possessing
special expressions, including compounds, that have been labeled ‘psycho-collocations’ by
Matisoff (1986a). These collocations, for the main part, all involve body part terms and the
expression of inalienability which is subject to metaphorical extension into the realm of
emotions and subjective evaluations (Clark 1996). The inalienable expressions may occur as
12 Hilary Chappell
N-V compounds in double nominative and SV sentences, or as V-N expressions in
unaccusative constructions (Chappell 1996, 1999). These are each illustrated in turn below:
NounTopic – [NounBody part – VerbIntransitive/Stative]Comment
(10) 汝目孔赤 (大)啊。
li2 bak8-khang1 chhiah4 (toa7) a.
2SG eye :socket red (big) CRS
‘You’re jealous.’ (literally: ‘As for you, eye sockets red.’)
‘You’re proud.’ (literally: ‘As for you, eye sockets big.’)
[NounPossessor – GEN – NounPossessed body part]Subject – VerbIntransitive/Stative
goa2 e5 hin7khang1 khin1
1SG GEN ear:channel light
‘I’m gullible.’ (literally: ‘My auditory channel is light.’)
NounSubject – VerbIntransitive/Stative – NounBody part
I1 pai2 tioh8 toh8 kha1.
3SG lame ACH left leg
‘He has gone lame in the left leg.’
There are many compound adjectives formed on the basis of body part terms. Noteworthy is
the fact that they are all based on the similar grammatical relationships to the above of either
S-V, V-O, or ADJ-NOUN.
(13) SubjectBody Part -Predicate Stative à Predicative adjective
sim1-sek4 heart-fit 心適 ‘interesting’; bin7-sek8 面熟 face-ripe ‘be familiar with’;
chhui3-ta1 喙焦 mouth-dry ‘thirsty’; sim1-sng1心酸, heart-sour ‘sad’; phi7 sng1
鼻痠 nose-aching ‘mean, stingy’
(14) Subordinate type compounds
kek4-kut4 激骨 provoke-bone (V-O) ‘to be contrary’; toa7-chih8 big-tongue (ADJ-N) 大
舌 ‘to lisp, stutter’ ‘someone who stutters’; thih4- khi2 iron-tooth (ADJ-N) 鐵齒 ‘to be
This striking property of using body part terms to code emotions and inherent physical and
personality characteristics, whose expression makes use of several construction types, appears
to be an areal feature of Southeast Asia (Clark 1996).
2.3. Elaborate expressions
In Southern Min, a productive process for creating polysyllabic adjectives is the use of the
common reduplication pattern ABB. Such alliterative expressions, also known as
‘ideophones’, possess either a common syllable across the reduplicated section, as in (15), if
not a common syllable component, as in (16) :
(15) ang5-chu1-chu1 紅囗囗 ‘rosy red’
13 Southern Min
kim1-siak4-siak4 金囗囗 ‘glossy, glittering’
tam5-ka3-ka3 氵昝囗囗 ‘drenched, dripping wet’
This is based on onomatopoeia and intensifies the meaning of the first morpheme and
adjective (S. Cheng 1981: 58-62). Such constructions are one of the patterns distinguishing
adjectives from verbs, which cannot in the main be modified by intensifiers.
A second pattern involves partial reduplication of the syllable, either the initial
consonant or the rhyme, that is, the nucleus vowel combined with the syllable coda, if any:
(16) san2 -pi1-pa1 嗽囗囗 ‘thin as a rake’
輕囗囗 ‘light as a feather’
These elaborate expressions have an emotive element in expressing vividness. The
reduplicated syllables do not have any independent lexical use as free morphemes.
As regards quadrisyllabic expressions, Southern Min is no exception among Sinitic
languages in making use of four-character idiomatic phrases which contribute to a lively and
expressive style in both speech and writing. Furthermore, a large number of these four-
character phrases are unique to Southern Min and without word-for-word equivalents in
(17) chhui3-chhio3-bak8-chhio3 喙笑目笑 mouth-smile-eye-smile
chiah8-kong1-khng3-su1 食公囗私 eat-public-store:up-private
‘hoard personal savings while making use of public funds’
Reduplication is a morphological process in which a root is wholly or partially copied.
There are quite distinct forms and meanings for adjectival and verbal reduplication in
Southern Min which do not correspond fully to those in standard Mandarin.
First of all, verbs are reduplicated VV to code the aspectual meaning of short duration
of an action ‘to Verb for a little while’, that is, the delimitative, but not the tentative aspect of
‘just try to Verb’ as in Mandarin. Second, when adjectives are reduplicated, they code the
approximative meaning ‘sort of Xquality’. A further contrast with Mandarin is that
monosyllabic adjectives also permit triplication to express an intensity reading ‘extremely
Xquality’ as predicative adjectives, an operation which is not permitted however for verbs in
Monosyllabic adjectives thus possess two possibilities of derivation :
AA ‘sort of Xquality’ and AAA ‘extremely Xquality’
(18) Reduplication of monosyllabic adjectives : AA
ang5-ang5 紅紅 ‘sort of red, reddish’
sui2- sui2 美美 ‘rather beautiful’
(19) Triplication of monosyllabic adjectives : AAA
ang5-ang5-ang5 紅紅紅 ‘extremely red’
sui2- sui2-sui2 美美美 ‘very beautiful’
whereas disyllabic adjectives have, in general, just one main structure for reduplication which
again contrasts with the Mandarin AABB form: 15
14 Hilary Chappell
AB-AB ‘sort of Xquality’.
(20) 憨面 憨面
gong7bin7 - gong7bin7
‘kind of stupid-faced’
Finally, adjectives, but not verbs, freely allow derivation of new adverbs by means of another
reduplication pattern using the suffix –a2仔. These express manner:
(21) chhian2 -chhian2 –a2 kong2 淺淺仔講 shallow-shallow-ADV say ‘says very superficially
(to me)’ ; ban7-ban7-a2 慢慢仔 ‘slowly’
Table 8: Comparison of Southern Min adjectives and verbs in reduplication processes
Mono- and disyllabic forms
YES: short duration
ABB pattern: intensification of
quality with onomatopoeic
These patterns of reduplication also serve to differentiate adjectives from verbs as two
different grammatical categories in Southern Min.
3. Grammar and Syntax
3.1. Word order
Although Southern Min has the word order of (S)V(O) as one of its basic orders, as seen in
example (22) below, many permutations are possible due to topicalization, particularly the
kind which involves patient or direct object fronting, as in (23): OSV. OV word orders are in
fact often accompanied by subject noun ellipsis as in (45) and (57) below. Furthermore, they
have a purportedly very high frequency in Southern Min and are claimed to represent a
syntactic characteristic which distinguishes the language clearly in terms of word order from
standard Mandarin (Yang 1991: 269-276, Li Rulong 2007:13).
(22) SVO: 阿瑛咧拭卓仔。
A1 Ing1 leh4 chit4 toh4a2
A-Ing PROG wipe table
‘A Ing is wiping the table.’
(23) Object topicalization: OSV
chit4-kian7 tai7chi3 goa2 kho2li7 chin1 ku2 a.
this-CL matter 1SG consider very long:time PRT
‘This matter, I thought about it for a long time.’
15 Southern Min
Sinitic languages, in general, display head-final characteristics for their NP structure but a
mixture of head-initial and head-final ordering for their VPs and Southern Min is again no
exception to this rule. Hence, all the constituents of the noun phrase, including relative
clauses, precede the head noun (see §3.3.1. and Figure 1 below) whereas the majority of
adverbs and prepositional phrases precede the main verb (for more details, see Chappell
In conformity with this tendency for dependent-head typology in Sinitic languages, for
complex sentences, temporal, causal, conditional and concessive clauses typically precede the
matrix clause. The comparative construction also has the comparative marker preceding the
standard noun in one of its subtypes (§3.5.2).
The main parts of speech in Southern Min are nouns and pronouns, verbs, adjectives
(attributive and predicative), adverbs and adverbial adjuncts, demonstratives, quantifiers,
conjunctions, classifiers (nominal and verbal), localizers, aspect markers and grammatical
function words, not to mention the modal or attitudinal discourse markers occurring in clause-
3.2. Syntactic functions
As typical of Sinitic languages, there appears to be a certain fluidity as to which grammatical
categories may fill which syntactic functions: For example, verbs may act as nouns without
requiring any explicit morphological marking in Southern Min, and in a similar vein, both
nouns and ‘small’ SV clauses may act as predicates. However, these possibilities are all
subject to quite specific syntactic and semantic constraints: for example, once a verb is used
as a noun, it may no longer be reduplicated in its new function as a deverbal noun.16
(24) Verb > Deverbal noun
pìan-keng siat-tēng chū-sóo pìan-keng
update setting address update
‘to update a setting’ ‘an address update’
Adjectives may be used as predicates without requiring the copula but they do not form a
subclass of verbs in Southern Min due to their different syntactic patterning and constraints
on usage (§2.4). There is no morphological distinction for voice on verbs to signal active
versus passive mood. Instead, prepositions are used to signal different case-like roles (§3.5.1)
as part of special grammatical construction types including object-marking, dative and
3.3. Nominal domain
3.3.1. Basic structure of the NP
The basic structure and constituents of the noun phrase in Southern Min are represented by
the diagram in Figure 1.
16 Hilary Chappell
188.8.131.52. NP Component order for Southern Min
(DEM+CL) (Relative clause) e5 (DEM+(Num)+ CL) Postpositions
(DEM+CL) ((Ints) Adjective) 其 (DEM+(QF + (CL))
SLOT 1 SLOT 2 SLOT 3 SLOT 4 SLOT 5
The diagram in Figure 1 can be decompressed into two main types of noun phrase in
Southern Min, simple and complex:
i. Basic noun phrase structure
(POSS. PRO– e5) – (DEM–(CL)) – (ADJECTIVECORE) – NOUN
ii. Complex noun phrase structure
(POSS. PRO– e5) – (NUM–CL) – (INTENSIFIER–) ADJECTIVE – e5 – (NOUN)
(DEM–CL) – CLAUSE – e5– (NOUN)
[e5 = marker of linkage and dependency; nominalizer]
The NP in Southern Min can be minimally realized as just the head noun on its own,
such as the bare noun toh8-a2 卓仔 ‘table’ in (22), or by the use of a nominalizing
construction with either an Adjective + e5個 or a Relative clause + e5, as in soe3- e5 細個
small-LNK ‘the one that is small’, a headless NP. Apart from this nominalizing function, the
grammatical function word, e5, is a linker or, more technically, a marker of ligature for a
variety of syntactic relationships involved in modification.17 Thus, it links modifiying
elements such as relative clauses and adjectives with the head noun, and also serves as the
genitive marker and the general default classifier. This function word is claimed to be
historically derived from the particle qī 其 of Archaic Chinese which had genitive,
demonstrative and interrogative uses, developing additional uses as a classifier and attributive
marker during the Medieval Chinese period (Li Rulong 2007: 128-130).
There is a simple bipartite distinction in Southern Min for demonstratives, distinguishing
proximal from distal: chit8這 ‘this’ and hit4 彼 ‘that’ in determiner function and che1遮
‘this’ and he1遐 ‘that’ in pronoun function, mainly serving as subjects (see example 56). In
simple NPs, demonstratives generally occur in Slot 3 position with a following classifier but
may also be used in the position of Slot 1, where they can precede a relative clause or an
adjectival phrase in a complex NP. Their use with a classifier is on the whole obligatory, apart
from a special discourse use which highlights a (singular only) referent (see example 28
below). Combined with the individuating type of classifier, demonstratives similarly
exclusively code the singular (§3.3.2).
With respect to information structure, demonstratives also serve to provide an overt
morphological means for coding the definiteness of the head noun. Some typical examples are
17 Southern Min
provided below with descriptive labels for the different combinations of constituents. These
are all extracts from a narrative text in Taiwanese Southern Min.
184.108.40.206 Simple NPs with adjectival phrases
That the attributive adjective may directly precede the head noun is particularly common
with the core set of basic adjectives, including evaluative adjectives for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but
also those for size: ‘big’, ‘little’ and, generally speaking with monosyllabic adjectives. This
type of adjective has a predilection for lexicalization with the following noun to code generic
or classificatory nominals for kinds of persons and objects: cf. se3-han3 小漢, literally ‘little
chap’ –> ‘small, in childhood’; phain2-lang5 歹儂 ‘evil person’; sian7-su7 善事 ‘good deeds’.
(25) 好儂客 足濟歹儂客
ho2 lang5kheh4 chiok-che7 phain2 lang5kheh4
good customer many bad customer
‘good customers’ (J602) ‘many bad customers’ (J470)
In contrast, for disyllabic adjectives and adjectival phrases that incorporate an intensifier, the
ligature marker e5 is generally required as in (26):
(26) INTENSIFIER–ADJECTIVE – e5 – NOUN
siong7 kou2cha2 e5 hong1hoat4
most ancient LNK method
‘a most ancient method’ (J750)
220.127.116.11. Simple NPs with classifier phrases
The next set of examples illustrates various combinations of numerals, demonstratives and
classifiers with a head noun:
(27) NUM – CL – NOUN
i1 tioh8 hoo7 li2 chit8-ki1 tek4-a2.
3SG then give 2SG one-CL bamboo-DIMN
‘He then gives you a bamboo stick.’ (J38)
(28) DEM – Ø – NOUN
a hit4 tek4-a2 gia5 tiau5-e7
PRT that bamboo-DIMN carry stay-down
‘Eh, that bamboo stick, (you) keep it held down’ (object topicalization clause)
(29) NUM – CL – ADJECTIVE– NOUN
chhoe7 chit8-e5 toa7 chhiu-kha1,…
search one-CL big tree.foot
‘(I) looked for a tree with a large base …’ (J695)
18 Hilary Chappell
18.104.22.168. Complex NPs with relative clauses
What equates or translates from an English relative clause into Southern Min is not structurally
different, in fact, from attributive modification, since the same particle e5 is used.
ah chah4-lai5 e5 pian7tong1 la,
PRT bring-come LNK lunchbox PRT
long2 chiah8-oan5 a.
all eat-finish PRTCNF
‘The bento (lunchbox) I’d brought along had all been eaten up.’ (J697-698)
3.3.2. Classifier system of Southern Min
Southern Min dialects generally possess 30 or 40 true individuating classifiers, if we exclude
measure words and collective nouns that occur in the same prenominal modifier slot but
which do not share any salient cognitive or perceptual features with the classified noun. The
main parameters in Sinitic languages for classifier systems are
Animacy: humans versus animals versus plants
Shape: length, cylindricity, flatness, roundness
Let us highlight some distinguishing features of Southern Min classifier systems. The general
classifier is e5個and is used with nouns for humans, in addition to its default function : chit4
-e5 lang5 this-CL-person 遮個儂 ‘this person’. In contrast, for prototypical animal nouns
(mammals, domestic animals), and also for fowl, the classifier is chiah4 隻, for example, oxen
and pigs, nouns which normally take tóu ‘head’ 頭 [thoʊ35] in Mandarin. However, within the
animal kingdom, an extremely interesting distinction is made between fish, reptiles and
amphibians as opposed to all other creatures by means of boe2 尾 < ‘tail’: sa n1-boe2 hi5 三尾
魚 three-CL-fish ‘three fish’. The classifier 欉tsang5 < ‘bush’ is used for plants and trees in
general while, lui2蕊 ‘core of flower’ is another special Southern Min classifier used for
flowers, eyes, and mushrooms. These last three classifiers are not used as individuating
classifiers in standard Mandarin.2 Some of the other main shape classifiers shared with other
Sinitic languages are given in the following brief list. We remark on differences in usage with
standard Mandarin, where relevant:
(31) ki1枝 < ‘branch’ long, cylindrical objects – brushes, quills, columns, sticks
tiau5條 < ‘strip’ objects with a long, one-dimensional profile such as roads, railway
lines, streets, belts (a more restricted usage than in Mandarin)
tiun1 張 < ‘extend’ objects with a flat, two-dimensional part such as sheets (of paper),
te5塊 < ‘piece’ non-round objects with a chunky shape such as stones, cakes of
soap, table, chair, sugar, biscuit, house (a wider in usage than in
liap8 粒 < ‘grain’ is used in many Sinitic languages, including Mandarin, for small,
round objects including seeds, beads and pearls. In S. Min, it has
generalized in use with a large variety of round-shaped objects,
regardless of size: round fruits including melons; also balls, hand
2 It is true however that wěi 尾 can be used just for the noun ‘fish’ in Standard Mandarin.
19 Southern Min
As mentioned earlier, classifiers are obligatory with numerals and certain quantifiers,
but may be omitted under special discourse conditions with demonstratives (as in example 28
above). Unlike Cantonese and many Wu dialects, specific classifiers cannot be used as
markers of the genitive construction in Southern Min which uses the invariant form e5, if not
zero-marking with kin terms and other inalienable categories. Nonetheless, it can be observed
that the genitive is homophonic with the general classifier e5 to which it is very likely
historically related, as observed above. The demonstrative (+ classifier) possesses an
important function in anaphora and the information structure of discourse, as exemplified by
(27) and (28) above, consecutive utterances from the same text where the information status
changes from new and indefinite in (27) to given in (28) for tek4-a2 竹仔 ‘bamboo stick’,
being coded with the help of a demonstrative on its own in the latter instance.
Unlike many Southeast Asian and other Sinitic languages including Yue, Hui, Southern
Jianghuai Mandarin and Wu dialect groups, Min dialects located in Fujian province do not allow
omission of the demonstrative to code definiteness by means of simply the CL + Noun. This
takes place in the relevant dialects under the condition that the head noun represents given or
‘old’ information in the particular discourse context, specifically when occurring in a preverbal
position (Wang Jian 2015). By way of contrast, the Southern Min dialects located in
neighbouring Guangdong province to the south including Chaozhou (Teochew), Shantou
(Swatow) and dialects of the Leizhou peninsula may do exactly this, under contact influence
from the Yue dialects (Li Rulong 2007: 77, his example).
(32) Shantou dialect of Southern Min, Guangdong province
ZHI BI WU YONG LE.
CL pen NEG use CRS
‘This pen is broken.’
22.214.171.124 Restrictions on adjectives preceding the classifier:
As shown above in §3.3.1, adjectives typically are linked to head nouns with the marker of
ligature, e5. Unusually, in many Min, Yue (Cantonese) and most Wu dialects, classifiers can
be used in a highly restricted way to link certain attributive adjectives to the head noun. These
adjectives are, interestingly, typically confined to ‘big’ and ‘small’.
DEM – [big/small]– CL (–(ADJ)– NOUN)
u7 hit4 toa7 ^liap8 e5 toa7 chioh8thau5 ti7 hia1. -
have that big CL LNK big stone LOC there
‘There were large-sized boulders there.’ (J 760)
3.4. Verbal domain
The verb in Southern Min does not undergo any inflectional changes, as is typical of SEA
languages in general (Clark 1989). There is no obligatory category of tense, person or number
marked on the verb. Even compared with other Sinitic languages such as Cantonese and
standard Mandarin, the verbal aspect system in Southern Min is in an early developmental
stage with few grammaticalized markers (Li Rulong 2007). En revanche, the use of a diverse
number of phase markers and verbal complements of result, manner and extent in V2 position
is lexically rich.
20 Hilary Chappell
3.4.1. Verbal categories and the predicate in Southern Min
Southern Min possesses the grammatical category of aspect, but not of tense. This is, without
a doubt, a pan-Sinitic feature and is common across Southeast Asian languages. Unlike most
other major Sinitic languages (standard Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese), however, its
grammaticalized markers of aspect tend to occur in the preverbal position for adverbs. In fact,
this reflects a strategy used in earlier stages of Chinese for which a huge corpus of written
documents attest to the fact that aspectual meanings are typically coded in this position (see
The main verbal aspect markers of Southern Min are given in the table below:
(34) u7 有+ Verb Affirmative or perfect ((ti7)-(leh4))+ Verb ((佇)(咧)) Progressive
bat4捌 + Verb Experiential perfect Verb +.leh 咧Continuous
As can be seen from the table, Southern Min does not possess a highly grammaticalized
perfective aspect marker equivalent to Mandarin –le 了or Cantonese –jo 咗. The cognate to
Mandarin–le 了which is liau2 in Southern Min is used as a phase marker, meaning ‘to finish’
(see (37) below).
The common markers are the affirmative (or perfect) u7 有–Verb which makes use of the
verb ‘to have’, in a similar fashion to many European languages for this same aspectual
category: u7-be2有買‘have bought, did buy’; the past experiential bat4 捌–Verb (alternatively
coded as a verbal suffix by the Mandarin borrowing: Verb–koe3過) and the use of the
formally same aspect marker for both the progressive leh4咧–VERB and the durative, VERB–
.leh 咧. Note that these two aspectual functions are distinguished by their placement in
different positions, the first preverbally and the second postverbally, not to mention also by
the fact that the postverbal use is typically atonal.
For the two imperfective aspect markers, leh4咧–Verb (progressive) and Verb +.leh 咧
(durative), some claim that both have their source in the highly polysemous verb tioh8着
whose basic meaning is ‘to adhere, to stick to’ but also ‘to be at’ as a verb (Yang 1991: 235,
258), while others claim it is related to the compound verb ti7 leh4 佇囗 ‘to be at (a place)’
formed from the combination of ti7佇, a locative verb ‘to be at’ and leh4, a locative
preposition (Li Rulong 2007: 8; W. Chen 2011: 374-383) whereby leh4 is gradually taking
over the functions of the compound form.18 In either case, Southern Min has a semantically
similar, but not identical, source to Mandarin zài 在 ‘be at’ which has also developed into a
preverbal progressive marker, equally the case in many Southeast Asian languages for verbs
meaning ‘to dwell, to stay’ (Matisoff 1991). The progressive and the perfect (in its less
grammaticalized affirmative use) are both illustrated in the next example:
(35) 伊彼陣仔抵好佇唱歌。 我有聽着。
I1 hit4 chun7-a2 tu2ho2 ti7 chhiun3-koa1. – Goa2 u7 thian1-tioh8.
3SG that time just PROG sing-song 1SG PFT listen-ACH
‘She was singing then. – I did hear it.’
For the experiential aspect, the Quanzhou dialect group makes use of a postverbal
marker, tioh8着 ‘touch, be in contact with’ (Li 2007: 1-13), based on a sensory verb while the
preverbal marker in Taiwanese Southern Min has developed from a cognition verb: bat4 捌 <
‘to know, to distinguish’ (see Chappell 2001c for a pan-Sinitic treatment of experiential
aspect markers as evidentials).
21 Southern Min
(36) 伊捌死無去 。
I1 bat4 si3 bo5 khi3.
3SG EXP die NEG go
‘He had a near-death experience.’
Reduplication of the verb is used to code the short duration of an action or event, that is,
the delimitative aspect: Verbi–Verbi che7-che7 sit-sit 坐坐 ‘to stay a little while’. This aspect
can also be coded by means of a verbal classifier phrase: Verb chit8-e7-a2, as in che7 chit8-e7-
a2坐一下仔 sit-one-timeCL-DIMN ‘to stay a little while’.
126.96.36.199. Phase markers in V1V2 concatenations
In reality, the aspect system in Southern Min is complemented by a variety of verbs used
directly after the main verb in V2 position, and which are grammaticalized to varying degrees.
These have evolved from historically earlier serial verb constructions and may code aspect-
like meanings, if not result and direction, manner, extent and intensification (Lien 1994,
1995). Phase markers, resultative and directional verb complements are discussed in turn
Phase markers are less grammaticalized than the aspect markers of Southern Min and
retain a generalized lexical meaning associated with the stage to which an event is
implemented, for example, completion (but not perfectivity), achieving an activity, or
termination of an event, including the disappearance of any objects connected with it. This set
of semi-grammaticalized markers includes the cognate of standard Mandarin –le 了, liau2 in
Southern Min, which is still used in its original lexical sense of ‘(able to) finish’, as in: chiah8-
liau2 食了‘to finish eating’ (and not *‘to have eaten’), tioh8着 ‘to hit (the target)’, an
achievement phase marker in thian1-tioh 聽着 ‘to (successfully) hear’ (< listen-achieve) and
khi3 去 ‘away’ (< ‘to go, depart’, a phase marker denoting completion of a process that carries
the negative connotation of disappearance as in ta1-khi3 焳去‘to dry up’ (< dry-away).
Most of these phase markers form complex predicates that require the direct object
noun to be fronted into clause-initial position, particularly if it is given and referential. These
include liau2 了 ‘to finish’, khi3去 ‘away’, ho2 好 ‘properly, completely ’ < ‘well, good’, and
oan5 完 ‘finish’ as in (30) above with chiah8-oan5 ‘finish eating’ (Yang 1991, Lien 1994).
I7 khang1khoe3 cho3-liau2 tioh8 chau2 a0.
3SG work do-finish then leave PRTCNF
‘When he’d finished work, he left.’
Note that phase markers, in many cases, are unstressed and lose their full tonal value, which
distinguishes them from the highly lexical nature of resultative and directional complements,
discussed in the next section. In addition to this, their more restricted combinatorial
possibilities with verb classes and retention of lexical features, albeit generalized in meaning,
also act as identifying criteria.
188.8.131.52. Resultative and directional verb constructions
Resultative verb compounds (RVCs) and directional verb compounds (DVCs) are V1V2 (V3 )
constructions that represent a special feature of Sinitic languages. They have the following
RVC: V1[Action/Event] – V2[State/Phase marker]
DVC: V1[Action/Event] – (V2[Spatial orientation]) – (V3[來 lai5 ‘come’/去 khi3 ‘go’])
22 Hilary Chappell
RVCs are productively formed by two verb constituents V1 V2 where V1 is an action or
event verb and V2 is typically filled by adjectives and some intransitive verbs, that code the
state which results after V1 has occurred, for example, kong3-phoa3敲破 hit-break ‘to break
by hitting’ and similarly hoan2-ng5 ‘turn yellow’ in (38) and long5-phoa3 ‘cause-break’ in (45)
soo2i 2 kui1-e5 kha1 long2 hoan2-ng5 an2ni .
therefore whole-CL foot all turn-yellow in.this.way
‘so your whole foot turned yellow like this.’ [from working in the paddy fields
all day] (J71)
A second major type of verb complex involves directional verb compounds or DVCs.
Unlike most RVCs, they can be composed of up to three verb constituents V1 (V2 )V3 where
V1 is a frequently a motion verb in the concrete use of these DVCs (but can also be an action
or event verb in more abstract uses) and V2 is a directional verb. V3 is usually one of two
main deictic verbs, either 來lai5 ‘come, motion towards speaker’ or 去khi3 ‘go, motion away
from speaker’, for example, 挾來 chah4-lai5 bring-come ‘to bring along’ in (30) above, which
is a V1V3 combination. The trisyllabic DVCs, composed of V1V2V3, include as V2 six
different verbs of orientation used as directional complements: khi2 起 ‘up’, loh8 落 ‘down’,
tng2 轉 ‘back’, kue3 過 ‘over’, jip8 入 ‘in’ and tshut4 出 ‘out’ in combination with one of the
two deictic verbs as V3. One such disyllabic directional complement is exemplified in (39) by
sin3-khi2-lai5 ‘pick up (towards speaker):
(39) 卡緊 閣 承起來按 呢 。
khah4 kin2 koh4 sin5-khi2-lai5 an2-ni.
more fast again pick-up-comeDEIC in.this.way
‘and I quickly picked them up again. [plates dropped while waitering]’ (J232)
3. 4.1.4. Potential verb compounds
Both RVCs and DVCs can also form what are called ‘potential verb compounds’ by
means of an infix e7 會in its affirmative form: V1 會 (V2)V3 or by means of the infix boe7 勿
會 in the negative potential form: V1勿會(V2)V3. These two variants of the potential verb
compound allow for the interpretation of ‘able to V1 so that V2’ or alternatively, ‘unable to V1
so that V2’. Here are some examples:
‘I could see clearly.’
goa2 khoan3-boe7-chheng7 .
‘I couldn’t see clearly.’
Some dialects of Southern Min, such as Quanzhou even allow a doubled-up infix with V1 -
e7lit4-(V2)V3 or the negated form V1 boe7 lit4 (V2)V3 where 得 lit4 (the weakened form of tit4)
is an infix derived from a modal verb, similarly meaning ‘to be able’, which in its turn is
related to a ditransitive verb meaning ‘to get, to obtain’ (see Sun 1996 for details).
23 Southern Min
(42) Double marking of ‘can’: V1 e7lit4 V2
li2 chiah8-e7lit4-loh8-khi boe7?
2SG eat -can-down-goDEIC NEG.can
‘Can you eat it all up?” (e.g. a large bowl of rice)
Another potential construction in Southern Min, which is used to express a judgement as to
whether an action is allowed or not (Li Rulong 2007: 133-135), reflects a conservative form
in that it is attested from the Medieval Chinese period up until the 13th century when it began
to decline in use in Early Mandarin, being gradually ousted by the V1-de 得-V2 potential form
(Sun 1996: chapter 2). The construction formed by e7 VERB lit0 is still in use in Southern Min:
(43) Potential construction: e7 VERB lit0 ~ 會VERB 得
I1 e7 chiah8-lit0.
3SG can eat-able
‘He is allowed to eat it (i.e. it’s not forbidden to him).’
These two potential constructions exemplify another common process of semantic change in
Southeast Asia from get > able (Matisoff 1991, Enfield 2003).
The irrealis and future contexts are expressed with modal verbs such as beh4 卜‘want’, ai3 愛
‘wish, like’. By semantic extension of meaning, the latter verb can thus be used to express the
future. E7會 ‘able, can’ may serve both as a dynamic modal verb expressing capability and an
epistemic modal expressing possibility. The latter sense is uppermost in e7 koan5 boe7? 會寒勿
會able be:cold NEG:able ‘Is it going to be cold?’. Some verbs have undergone dramatic
semantic change to evolve into modal verbs as exemplifed by tioh8着 ‘hit the mark’, ‘to be
right’ which is used as a deontic modal verb of obligation ‘should, must’, so too thang1 通 ‘to
go through, to succeed’ which has evolved into a modal verb of permission ‘may, to be
allowed’ or in its negative form m7 thang1 伓通 ‘must not’. There is also a large number of
disyllabic or compound modal expressions, including e7sai2 lit0 會使得‘may’, tioh8 ai3 着愛
‘ought to’ and e7hiau2 會曉 ‘can’ in the sense of ‘to know how to’.
Southern Min dialects possess a well-developed set of highly semantically diversified
negative markers, finely nuanced as to the type of negation. Structurally, this plethora of
markers has largely arisen from fusion of the two main negators bo5 ‘existential and
perfective negative’ and m7 ‘general negative’ with the commonly occurring modal verbs in
Southern Min. Some of the main negative adverbs are presented in the following table.
Table 9: Taiwanese Southern Min negative markers
bo5無+ V Negation of both perfective & habitual contexts, most predicative adjectives,
negative possessive verb ‘to not have’, negative existential verb ‘there is not’
m7唔+V Negative marker for copular verb, modal verbs, imperfective
contexts, irrealis, unwillingness to V
(ia5) be7(猶)未+ V Negation of expectation or presupposition: ‘have not (yet) V-ed’
boe7勿会+ V Negation of ability or possibility to V: ‘unable to V’
mai3莫+ V Negative imperative: ‘Don’t V!’
(m7)bien2 (唔)免+ V Negation of necessity: ‘You don’t need to V’
24 Hilary Chappell
Southern Min, as for many non-Mandarin Sinitic languages, also possesses a negative
existential verb ‘to not have, there is not’ which can be used directly before a noun phrase:
bo5 hoat 4to7 無發度 ‘there is no way, no method’. The negative imperative is formed by the
use of mai3莫, among other possibilities with compound modal forms such as (m7)bien2 唔免
‘Don’t VERB (there is no need)’ and boe7-sai3勿会使 ‘Don’t VERB (it is not allowed)’:
Li2 mai3 siu1khi3.
2SG NEG.IMP get.angry
‘Don’t get angry!’
For a detailed discussion of both simple and fused negative adverbs in Southern Min, see Li
3.4.2. Serial verb constructions (SVCs)
Serial verb constructions of several different types can be found in Sinitic languages which
belong the core serialization type (Foley &Van Valin 1984): S V1 (N1) V2 (N2) (…).
Historically, this syntactic configuration has led to the creation of the asymmetrical type of
SVC, producing both preverbal or postverbal prepositional adjunct phrases from former V-N
concatenations, a strong tendency for this type of SVC. These prepositional phrases in turn
serve to express different case roles (see Durie 1997 and Vittrant 2006 for details on SVC
types.) Hence, the first main outcome of this grammaticalization process for the type S V1
N1 V2 (N2) is the formation of major syntactic constructions in Sinitic languages – including
dative, object-marking, passive, locative and instrumental types, several of which are
discussed in §3.5. A second outcome is the formation of complex verbs including resultative
and directional verb compounds where the second verb in a V1V2 series gradually
grammaticalizes from a lexical verb into a resultative or directional complement, thence into a
phase marker where it ultimately faces the possibility of developing into a highly bleached
aspect marker (§184.108.40.206).
3.5. Clausal and sentential organization
3.5.1. Word order
As noted in §3.1, while SV(O) is one of the basic word orders in Southern Min, there are
several other highly frequent patterns available, whose use depends on certain syntactic
features of the clause. Alternation in the basic word order is, thus, not simply a function of
pragmatics and discourse in Southern Min but is determined by the given syntactic constraints
in operation. For example, certain constructions with verb complexes may obligatorily require
the object noun to be fronted: OV1X, due to the use of specific phase markers (X) which do
not allow a postverbal object to follow them (Lien 1994, Li 2007). The following example is
from a narrative text and shows a clear OV order with the use of an RVC and ellipsis of the
subject noun, goa2 ‘1SG’.The topic of the discourse is the narrator’s fear of dropping and
smashing a tray of soup bowls that he is carrying upstairs to give to a wedding party, since
superstition dictates that this would bring bad luck. The noun oan2 ‘bowl’ is thus both the
discourse and syntactic topic in (45).
chha1-chit8-diam2 hit4-te5 oan2 kui1-e5 long5-phoa3.
nearly that-CL bowl whole-CL cause-break
‘(I stumbled up the stairs and) nearly broke the whole lot of bowls.’ (J221)
25 Southern Min
3.5.2. Clause types
In this section, we discuss clause types which have historically evolved from fixed
sequences of serial verbs, including ditransitives, benefactives, passives, object-marking and
comparative constructions in addition to some other basic types such as conditionals and
220.127.116.11 Give constructions
A pan-Southeast Asian feature involves the grammaticalization of give verbs into dative,
benefactive and causative markers. This applies equally well to Sinitic languages. In Southern
Min, the dative marker may have evolved from the verb hoo7與 ‘give’ and introduces the
indirect object in ditransitive constructions in a postverbal position. Compare the so-called
‘double object’ construction in (46) whose main verb is a ditransitive verb of transferral,
sang3 ‘to offer as a present’, with the dative construction which uses the same lexeme hoo7,
grammaticalized as a preposition marking the indirect object. In both, the indirect object
precedes the direct object but there is no prepositional marker in the double object
construction. (See example (27) for the verbal use of hoo7 as a verb ‘to give’.)
(46) Double object construction in Southern Min : Subject–VerbTransferral – IO – DO
Goa2 sang3 i1 chit8-nian2 san1.
1SG give 3SG one-CL shirt
‘I gave him a shirt (as a present).’
(47) Ditransitive construction in Southern Min: Subject–VerbTransferral – [hoo7與– IO] – DO
koh4 ke1 hoo7 goa2 chit8-koan2.
again add DAT 1SG one-CLPL
‘Give some more (food) to me!’
Nonetheless, the benefactive preposition in Southern Min is not derived from this source,
unlike standard Mandarin which uses gĕi 給 ‘for’ < ‘to give’. Rather, it has evolved from the
comitative marker ka(ng)7 共 which underwent a secondary grammaticalization into a marker
of oblique case roles.
lang5 long2 e7 ka7 lan2 sang3-lai.
people all able for 1PLINC deliver-come
‘(Usually when we run out of goods), they’ll deliver for us.’ (J428)
A distinctive feature of Sinitic languages which is quite rare in the SEA linguistic area is
the use of a passive marker derived from a give verb, in the case of Southern Min, the same
postverbal marker of the dative, hoo7 與 ‘to give’. This is a typical feature of Southern and
Central Sinitic languages while it is much less common in Northern Mandarin dialects,
including the standard language (Chappell 2015). Its use is restricted to adversative events,
such as i1 bo7 thang1 hoo7 lang5 kong2 伊無通與儂講 3SG-NEG.allow PASS-3GENERIC-criticize
‘She isn’t willing to be criticized by others’. This development is possible via a stage where
hoo7 is used as a permissive causative verb meaning ‘to let’ (Chappell & Peyraube 2006, for
Southeast Asia, see Yap & Iwasaki 2003):
26 Hilary Chappell
(49) Taiwanese hoo7 ambiguous between passive and causative meanings:
a goa2 m7 hoo7 li2 koan2
PRT 1SG NEG CAUS/PASS 2SG rule
‘I won’t let you rule me.’ OR: ‘I don’t want to be ruled by you.’ (JT 677)
Another important syntactic constraint is that the agent may not be omitted. In the case of
indefinite agents, a fusion and contraction of hoo7 lang5 與儂 ‘by someone’ to hong5 is
frequent in colloquial speech to minimally fulfil this syntactic requirement for a dummy agent
(50) Taiwanese hoo7 passive with contracted agent NP:
轉來著 與侬拍甲欲 死。
tng5-lai toh8 hong5 <F ^phah4 kah beh4 si3 F>.
return then PASS:3INDEF hit EXT want die
‘[When I] returned home, I really got a terrible beating [from my parents].’ (J 142)
Other Min languages use cognates of the verb khit4 乞in this function, which also means ‘to
give’, including the Northeastern Fuzhou dialect (see Chappell 2000, Lien 2002).
18.104.22.168 Object-marking constructions
Object-marking constructions, known as the ‘disposal’ or ‘pretransitive’ form in Chinese
linguistics, employ ka7 < kang7 共) to introduce the direct object which is placed before the
main verb. This corresponds to the use of ba3 把in Mandarin. However, the source is
different as the marker ka7 has grammaticalized from earlier comitative and oblique functions,
one of which is illustrated in (48) above, the benefactive (Chappell 2000, 2006; Chappell,
Peyraube & Wu 2011).
(51) Taiwanese Southern Min object-marking construction with kā:
(NPSUBJECT) – [KĀOM+ NPDO] – VERB PHRASE
所以阮 攏共 褲 褪 起來。
soo2-i2 gun2 long2 ka7 khoo3 tng3-khi2-lai5
therefore 1PL all OM trousers take.off-comeDEIC
‘So we all took our trousers off (to go swimming).’
(J 116; summertime activities of a mischievous group of boys)
Also highly frequent is a variant of the ka7 construction where the direct object is placed in
clause-initial position or, if absent and thus ‘zero-marked’, is to be found in the preceding
text, as in (52). In this subtype, a co-referential 3SG pronoun i2伊follows the marker ka7,
which in its turn may be contracted in fast speech to kai7 or kah4.
(52) Taiwanese Southern Min KĀ with a clause-initial object and an anaphoric pronoun:
(NPDO(i))– [KĀOM + PRODO(i)] – VP
耳朵 … 共伊封起來！
(ĕrduo…)MAND ka7 i1 hong1-khi2-lai
(ears …) OM 3SG seal-INCT (F101-102)
‘(Best to fill your ears with wax) and seal them up! (so as not to hear the nagging).’19
27 Southern Min
22.214.171.124 Comparative constructions
The most common way of forming the comparative construction in Taiwanese Southern Min
is with a hybrid form composed of pi2比 (<’compare’), cognate with the Mandarin
comparative marker bi3, and the ‘native’ comparative marker khah4較 ‘more’, as in the next
(53) A [Comparee] pi2 B [Standard] khah4 Verb
A1 Hui1 pi2 li2 khah4 cha2 chhut4-sen.
NAME COMP 2SG more early be.born
‘A Hui was born before you.’ (literally: A Hui was born earlier than you.)’
In more conservative Southern Min dialects, such as Hui’an, the predicative adjective
precedes the standard noun.
(54) A [Comparee] khah4 Verb B[Standard]
in the Hui’an dialect (Quanzhou subgroup)
i33 k‘aʔ4 toa42 ɡoa55 .
3SG COMP big 1SG
‘She is older than me.’ (literally: ‘She more olds me.’)
For more details on comparatives of inequality in Hui’an Southern Min, see Chen (2015).
126.96.36.199 Conditional constructions
Conditional constructions make use of the conjunction na7 若 ‘if’, with the condition clause
preceding the consequence clause.
bin5-na2-chai3 na7si3 loh8 hoo7, goa2 boe7 lai5.
tomorrow if be fall rain 1SG NEG.can come
‘If it rains tomorrow, I won’t come.’
A compound conjunction na7 kong2 if.say ‘if’ is also common in conversational texts, making
use of the verb ‘to say’ as one of its components (see Chappell 2008 for an analysis of the
grammaticalization of say verbs in Sinitic).
(56) 古早 hon…若講 讀國民學校，這是卡普遍 。
koo2-tsa2 hon …na7-kong2 thak8… kok4-bin5 hak4-hau 7
earlier PRT if:SAYCOND study state school
che1 si3 khah4 pho2-phian3 (…).
this be more common
‘Earlier, if you completed elementary school education, this was more common. (...).
28 Hilary Chappell
3.5.3. Ellipsis of arguments
Ellipsis of arguments is a widespread phenomenon in Sinitic languages. It can be viewed as a
form of zero anaphora, in particular for 1st and 2nd person participants universally present in
the context of a dialogue, and in general for the referent of any noun found in the immediately
preceding context. This process takes place when there is a change of status for the referent in
the specific discourse from new into given information. This can be seen in the textual
material provided in the appendix and in examples (29), (30), (39), (45), (50) and (57).
3.5.4. Information Structure
In general, given information precedes the verb phrase in Southern Min while new
information follows the main verb. In this, Southern Min is no different from other Sinitic
languages. For example, in the object-marking construction with ka7, the preverbal direct
object introduced by this preposition typically represents given information. This explains
why it is often pronominalized. See examples (48), (51) and (52).
188.8.131.52 Topicalization and topic markers
Topicalization of patient nouns is a common syntactic process in Southern Min whereby
the noun representing the direct object of a transitive verb is ‘fronted’ into clause-initial
position (see example (57) below, (45) and (37) above).
Kim1-a2-jit8 seng1-li2 buai3 cho3.
today business NEG.want do
‘Today (I) don’t want to do trading.’ (J542)
As earlier remarked, this is in fact obligatory for certain structures composed of complex
predicates with phase markers (Yang 1991, Lien 1994, R. Li 2007) and distinguishes
Southern Min from other Sinitic languages. Other topic markers are based on discourse
markers that can occur post-nominally and mark this noun as a topic, including ne 呢in
Taiwanese, exemplified in (58).
(58) 彼個稻稿頭呢， 有佇水的外口。
Hit4 e5 tiu7ko2thau2 ne, u7 ti7 chui2 e5 goa7-khau2.
that CL rice.stalk.head PRTTOP have at water GEN outside
‘(After the harvest), as for those rice stalk heads, they were right above the water.’
It is not accurate to claim however that Southern Min is essentially a topic-prominent
language, if this refers to purely its syntactic structure. Many constructions illustrated in
§3.5.2 show that the grammatical subject can be identified, even in the double nominative
pattern discussed in §2.2 which involves a topic and an SV comment. The topical value of
nouns in terms of discourse flow and information structure is undoubtedly a question that may
only be answered by means of a detailed discourse analysis of a large corpus of oral texts.
A special form of polar questions, which require either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as the response, was
early remarked upon by Marybeth Clark (1985) as a feature of many SEA and Chinese
languages, as opposed to information or ‘Wh-’ questions. She observed that there are two
main patterns for polar questions, both involving positive and negative counterparts of the
29 Southern Min
In Sinitic languages, the first pattern is typical of standard Mandarin, while Cantonese and
Hakka can use both types.
(60) VERB-NEG-VERB construction in standard Mandarin
Nĭ qù bu qù? 你去不去 ?
2SG go NEG go
‘Are you going?’
In contrast to this, one of the most frequently occurring interrogative constructions in
Southern Min is the second pattern, formed by simply attaching the main negative markers,
including bo5 無or m7唔, to the end of a declarative statement (see also Yue-Hashimoto
1991). Hence, it is in fact, more accurate to describe the construction as CLAUSE-NEG:
(61) CLAUSE-NEG polar question in Southern Min
i1 beh4 lai5 m7 ?
3SG want come NEG
‘Is he going to come?’
Other strategies are the use of the paradigm of interrogative pronouns in situ within the clause
and disjunctive questions.
3.6. Pragmatics & discourse
3.6.1. Final particles
As for Southeast Asian and Sinitic languages in general, Southern Min uses a set of clause-
final particles to code different kinds of modality including the associated subjective attitudes
of the speaker. Some of the clause-final particles in Southern Min are presented in Table 10
and given authentic discourse examples below:
Table 10: A selection of Taiwanese Southern Min clause-final particles
Assertion of a state of affairs
Confirmation of a situation, slightly insistent
Non-neutral polar question marker (general)
Non-neutral polar question marker (intention)
Non-neutral polar question marker (likelihood)
Newsworthiness, exclamations, warnings,
Draws hearer’s attention to topic at hand;
This grammatical sketch of Southern Min closes with a final three examples to illustrate some
of the modal values for four of the discourse markers listed in Table 10:
30 Hilary Chappell
Goa2 chiok8 kian1 e0.
1SG very scared PRTASST
‘I was very scared.’ (J557) (assertion of how narrator felt on finding himself lost on a
mountain at night)
Ma1 boe7 sai3 khun1 a0.
also NEG:allow sleep PRTCNF
‘You mustn’t take a nap either (while looking after the shop).’ (J538)
The use of the clause-final particle kong1 講in Southern Min, derived from the verb
‘say’ kong2 (which undergoes tone sandhi), has a newsworthy, exclamatory value and can be
used in threats and rebuttals (see Chappell 2017), the first use similar to old-fashioned English
I say (old chap)! or French Dis-donc! ‘How about that!’. The following example shows the
rebuttal use of kong1 講and relies on the context that A is on a strict diet and cannot indulge
in any treats. CM’s offer of chocolate therefore challenges her determination to stick to her
(64) Strict diet
CM: 你 慾愛 <L2 巧克力 L2> 無？
Li2 beh4ai3 <M qiăokèlì M> bo0
2SG like chocolate PRTQ <NEG
A: 無在痟講 。
bo5 teh4 siao2 kong1
NEG PROG crazy PRTSAY
CM: ‘Would you like some chocolate?’
A: ‘I’m not going crazy!’ (literally: ‘I’m telling you: it’s not the case that I’m crazy.’)20
The reader is referred to Cheng (1977), Lien (1988), Yang (1991), Chappell & Peyraube
(2016) and Chappell (2017) for further details and discussion of these discourse markers.
4. Conclusion and summary
Matisoff (1991: 386) divides the larger Southeast Asian zone into two main areas: the
Sinospheric and the non-Sinospheric. The Sinospheric area includes Southern Sinitic
(basically Sinitic languages south of the Yangzi) and all the language families which have
been in close cultural contact with China such as Hmong-Mien, Tai-Kadai, Vietnamese in the
Mon-Khmer branch of Austroasiatic, and certain branches of Tibeto-Burman such as Lolo-
Burmese. The non-Sinospheric languages include Austronesian languages, many Mon-Khmer
languages, and Tibeto-Burman languages, for example, those found in Northeastern India and
This division in fact meshes with the classic and fundamental division made by Mantaro
Hashimoto (1976, 1986) for Sinitic languages into Northern and Southern groups, which
however has been much debated in recent literature in Chinese linguistics (q.v. the discussion
in Chappell, Li & Peyraube 2007). The essence of Hashimoto’s hypothesis on contact-
induced language change is that Chinese languages in the south have been subject to
31 Southern Min
Taïcization while those in the north have been subject to Altaïcization. Hence, language
contact influences from Tai (Kra-Dai), but also from Austroasiatic, should be theoretically
observable amongst the Southern Sinitic languages, including the Min group of dialects.
This hypothesis can be tested out in a preliminary fashion by considering some of the
grammatical features presented by Matisoff (1991) which he views as unifying the Southeast
Asian area into a linguistic zone:
1) modal verbs > desiderative markers, ‘be likely to’
2) verbs meaning ‘to dwell’ > progressive aspect markers
3) verbs meaning ‘to finish’ > perfective aspect markers
4) verbs meaning ‘to get, obtain’ > ‘manage’, ‘able to’, ‘have to’
5) verbs of giving > causative and benefactive markers
6) verbs of saying > complementizers, topic and conditional markers
7) formation of resultative and directional compound verbs through verb concatenation
With respect to Sinitic, all these pathways of grammaticalization apply to both Northern and
Southern Sinitic languages, albeit the use of give verbs as causatives is less well-developed in
Northern Chinese (Chappell 2015). It also needs to be noted that little is known about the use
of say verbs as conditional markers, apart from Southern Min (§184.108.40.206.) where the main say
verb, kong2 講, shows just this development. Beijing and Taiwanese Mandarin as well as
Hong Kong Cantonese also have complementizers introducing subordinate clauses which are
grammaticalized from say verbs but along a different grammaticalization pathway from the
conditional and topic marker use (Chappell 2008).
With respect to just Southern Min, all these pathways have been illustrated or discussed
in this grammatical sketch while observing that two pathways are less well-developed,
namely (i) finish > perfective, which is still at an early stage of grammaticalization, and (ii)
get > able which has not remained the main strategy for coding potential verb compounds, nor
a high frequency modal verb. In pan-Sinitic terms, however, all these pathways can be
In conclusion, there are strong grounds for treating most of continental East Asia
including the Sinitic languages, as forming a linguistic area with Southeast Asia on this basis
of broadly defined traits. A more precise identification of linguistic micro-areas will depend
on further detailed research by specialists in the languages of East and Southeast Asia.
This research has been supported by funding from two grants accorded by the Programme blanc – blue sky
programme – of the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, France: ANR-08-BLAN-0174 DIAMIN (2009-2011) and
ANR-11-ISH2-001-01 TYSOMIN (2012-2015), both part of an international collaborative project on the
diachronic syntax of Southern Min carried out with the teams directed by Professor Lien Chinfa of National
Tsing Hua University, funded by the National Science Council of Taiwan. A third source of support was
provided by a grant from the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant Project FP-7 SINOTYPE N°
230388, 2009-2013). I express my gratitude to these organizations.
I would also like to thank Dr Imogen Yu-Chin CHEN 陳玉琴 for her dedicated research assistance in
collecting and transcribing the Southern Min narratives and conversations in Taipei used in this research and
also for the elicitation and analysis of Southern Min grammar which we carried out together during many
enjoyable sessions. I am similarly grateful to both Song Na (宋娜) and Lai Yunfan (賴雲帆) at the CRLAO in
Paris for their work in updating and finalizing these transcriptions.
Grammatical abbreviations used in the glossing of examples: ACH achievement phase marker; ASST assertive use
of sentence-final particle ; CAUS causative marker; CL classifier; COMP comparative marker; CNF confirmation
use of sentence-final particle; COND conditional marker; CRS currently relevant state marker; DAT dative
32 Hilary Chappell
preposition; DEIC deictic; DIMN diminutive marker or nominalizer; EXP experiential aspect marker; EXT extent
marker ‘so that’; GEN genitive marker; IMP imperative marker; INC inclusive form, INCT inchoative phase marker;
INDEF indefinite reference; LOC locative preposition; LNK linker (genitive, relative clause or attributive marker);
NEG negative adverb; OM object marker; PASS passive marker; PREF prefix; PRT discourse particle; PFT perfect
aspect marker; PL plural; PROG progressive aspect marker; PRT discourse particle; Q question particle for polar
questions; SG singular; SAY verbal source of grammaticalized marker.
Table 11 : Southern Min corpus
JAPANESE TALES (JT)
Length in minutes
No Intonation units
Family conversation in
Narrative by Fang
Narrative by Jesse
No of interlocutors
1. Principal subject News
on the latest fortune-
telling results for
members of the family,
based on divination
carried out by the
youngest uncle ;
2. Also discussed: sister
and her family in
losses, changing jobs
1. Japanese history:
Rise of General
2. Also discussed: life
in Taiwan under the
holidays, running a
2. As an adult: Lost
overnight on a
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1 This is a crude estimate based on data from Ethnologue (2017, see Simons & Fennig), the CIA World Factbook (2013) and on-
line access to the relevant statistics from official government censuses. Many censuses do not or have not posed questions on
language use, at home or in education, so that we have recourse only to statistics on ethnicity which evidently does not correlate
perfectly with linguistic competences. In addition to this, the census data on language use is often out-of-date where particular
governments have ceased asking questions about this. The estimate according to these same sources for ethnic Chinese populations
in Southeast Asia comes to over 27 million.
2 The latest census carried out in Thailand was in 2010. According to the National Statistical Office’s report, The 2010 Population
and Housing Census, http://popcensus.nso.go.th/file/popcensus-10-01-56-E.pdf , accessed on 23 August 2017, 95.9% of the
population of 65.9 million in Thailand are Thai, 2.0% are Burmese’ and 2.1% are classified under ‘Others’. It does not provide any
information on ethnicity.
3 Linguistic maps and the latest classification of the Min branch of Sinitic can be consulted in the second edition of the Language
Atlas of China (Zhang 2012).
4 In the late 20th century, T’sou (1987) estimated there there were 9 million Southern Min speakers in the Indo-Pacific basin,
including, however, second language speakers in the latter case. However, according to the most recent statistics from both
Ethnologue (2017, see Simons & Fennig) and the relevant government censuses for each Southeast Asian country which have
supplied figures on ethnicity and/or home language, this adds up to the rough estimate of seven million, excluding Papua New
Guinea and the South Pacific islands which T’sou had included in his larger survey. Note also that the Hokkien dialects are far less
common in the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where Cantonese dialects predominate among established Chinese
communities (Wurm et al, 1987: Maps B16a and 16b).
5 Some of the main toponyms and dialects of this group are listed below as a point of orientation for the reader:
Standard Mandarin Anglicized Min-Xiamen Characters
(pinyin) (Historical names) (IPA)
Fujian province Hokkien [Hok.kien] 福建
Fuzhou Foochow [Hok.tsiu] 福州
Xiamen Amoy [E.bng] 廈門
Quanzhou Ch’uanchou [Tshuan.tsiu] 泉州
Zhangzhou Changchou [Tsiang.tsiu] 漳州
Shantou Swatow [Suã.thau] 汕頭
Chaozhou Teochew [Dio.tsiu] 潮州
6 The modifications of the Church Romanization, originally devised by Carstairs Douglas (1873) are as follows: The symbols,
ts and tsh, are not used since they represent sounds which are no longer phonemically distinct from ch and chh respectively in
modern Southern Min. Open o and closed o are represented as oo and o.Vocalic nasalization is indicated by a superscript n.
An empty box, 囗, is used wherever the Chinese character is not known, which is not infrequent in the case of the special
Southern Min lexemes. We base this chapter on Taiwanese Southern Min for the practical reason that there are no
comprehensive reference grammars of Southeastern Asian varieties of Hokkien available (nor of mainland Fujian varieties
for that matter), while Taiwanese has been the subject of a great deal of research.
7 The writing system and the methods adopted for representing Southern Min in terms of characters are both discussed in more
detail in Chappell and Lien (2011).
8 The ‘Sangley’ Chinese traders settled on the outskirts of Manila, in the Philippines, in an area known as the parián during the late
16th century. The Spanish missionaries of the Dominican order in Manila proselytized not only to the majority of Tagalog speakers
but also to this Chinese community. For more information, see Klöter (2011) and Chappell and Peyraube (2006).
9 See, however, Chen (2000: 74-76) on register spread in Chaozhou polysyllabic words.
10 Phonation may however be a secondary feature of tone systems in Chinese languages (e.g. creaky voice) and certainly played a
role in tonogenesis. Shanghainese is considered to be a phonation register language with the feature of breathy or murmured
37 Southern Min
11 Note that the tonal values vary widely from dialect to dialect of Southern Min and also from author to author, depending on a
variety of factors including, for example, the region in Taiwan and whether it is predominantly Quanzhou-based or Zhangzhou-
based. I refer to Chappell & Lien (2011) for these values. Yang (1991: 34-35) gives the following values for Taiwanese Southern
Min which differ somewhat from ours: Tone 1 High Level, 陰平: 44; Tone 2 陰上: 53, Tone 3 陰去: 31; Tone 4 陰入: 32 or 22;
Tone 5 陽平: 13: Tone 7 陽去: 22 and Tone 8 陽入: 33.`
12 The Quanzhou dialect has two extra vowels : /ə/ and /ɯ/ according to Yang (1991) and Weirong Chen (2011).
13 Recall here that the voiced counterpart of /t/ in Southern Min has merged with /l/.
14 Note that the stem of the word used for ‘child’ –囡仔 gín-á ~ gín-ná in contemporary Taiwanese – cannot be the source for this
diminutive on phonological grounds (see Lien 1998).
15 The reader is referred to detailed studies on reduplication in Taiwanese Southern Min including S. Cheng (1981) and F. Tsao
(2001). The discussion in §2.4 is based partly on these analyses. Due to contact with Mandarin, the form AABB is also possible
for some disyllabic adjectives with the intensity reading (S. Cheng 1981: 62-63).
16 Note that it is possible for a certain number of monosyllabic nouns to be reduplicated with the sense of ‘every’: lang5 lang5 儂儂
‘every person’, ‘everyone’.
17 Despite the fact that the etymology of e5 is the morpheme qī 其(Li Rulong 2007), the Chinese character 個 is generally used to
represent the particle e5 in its classifier function while the character 的 is used for its other modifying functions as a genitive and
attributive marker. This is for ease of comprehension of the examples.
18 Consequently, I adopt the use of the character 咧 to provisionally represent this aspect marker since the actual source has not yet
been ascertained. My informant could also use the locative verb, ti7佇, on its own as a progressive aspect marker, as seen in
19 In this conversational text, the speaker begins in Mandarin and then switches back to Southern Min, which explains why the
subject noun, ĕrduo ‘ears’, is given in Mandarin.
20 See Chappell (2017) for source details.