“Already” / “Liao” as aspect marker in Singlish

This is an essay I wrote for LING-UA 36 Indo-European Syntax at New York University.

Despite the name, Indo-European Syntax at NYU is much more of a historical linguistics class than a syntax class, reflecting the expertise of Professor John Costello.

Even though Singlish appears to have nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European syntax, this oddball topic was accepted as an essay for this class, because it studies a change in syntax resulting from language contact (another one of Professor Costello's research interests), in which one of the languages in contact is Indo-European.

This essay is not a research essay, but rather an outline of ideas. As a result, it does not meet the burden of proof required of a proper research paper; temper your expectations accordingly.

To the best of my knowledge, the syntax of this aspect marker has never been described in this way, although if that is not the case, please let me know.

Singlish is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore, influenced by various Chinese dialects, particularly Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin, Malay, and to a lesser degree, languages from the Indian subcontinent. It is often thought of as "English with Chinese syntax", although as we will see in this essay, this is not strictly true. In this essay, I will analyze the function of the word "already", as well as the closely related “liao”, as it is used in Singlish.

“Liao” is the Hokkien cognate of Mandarin Chinese 了 (lè), which has two primary functions in Mandarin Chinese: it can mark completion, thus functioning as a perfective aspect marker, or it can indicate a change of state, functioning as an inceptive or inchoative aspect marker (Ross and Sheng Ma 62, 226, 236). “Liao” in Singlish has these two functions as well. In Singlish, “already” is used in the same way as “liao”; “liao” can always be replaced with “already” except in one case, and the reverse substitution of “liao” for “already” is not always valid, as we will see in this essay.

A common and unambiguous use of Singlish "already" or “liao” can be seen in the following sentence: "Eat already or not?" / “Eat liao or not?” This question, meaning "Have you eaten?", corresponds exactly, in terms of syntax, to the Mandarin Chinese equivalent "吃了没有?” (chī lè méi yǒu):

Eat already or not?
verb perfective marker negation

In this sentence, “already” / “liao” corresponds to Chinese 了. In the Mandarin sentence, 了 marks completion and is thus a perfective aspect marker. “Already” / “liao” similarly functions as a perfective aspect marker in this sentence.

An ambiguous use of “already” / “liao”, however, can be seen here:

I eat already
pronoun verb marker

In both the Singlish and Chinese sentences, “already” / “liao” / 了 might mark completion, or might mark change of state. If “already” / “liao” / 了 are being used to mark completion, the sentences mean “I ate”; if they are being used to mark a change of state, then the sentences mean “I am about to eat” and “already” / “liao” / 了 therefore instead mark the inchoative aspect.

In Singlish, there are ways to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence, such as through the use of mood particles or interjections. It should be noted that in these situations, the primary function of these mood particles or interjections is not to disambiguate “already”, but rather that because they add additional context, they have the side effect of disambiguating “already” / “liao”. For example:

Eh I eat already can?
interjection pronoun verb marker question particle

(It is possible to contrive a scenario in which the above sentence means “I ate”, but it is a sufficiently marginal case that I will not consider it in this essay.)

In this example, the addition of the interjection “eh”, used to catch the attention of the listener, and the question particle “can?”, used in this case to ask for permission, provide sufficient context to determine that the speaker is asking for permission to begin eating, and therefore “already” / “liao” in this sentence serves as an inchoative aspect marker. A similar (but not syntactically identical) sentence in Mandarin Chinese, with the same meaning, would look like this:

可以 吗?
I can eat (marker) (question particle)
pronoun modal verb verb marker question particle

In the example above, 了 serves as an inchoative aspect marker as well.

Yeah I eat already
interjection pronoun verb marker

In the above sentence, the addition of the affirmative “yeah” suggests that the speaker is answering a question, possibly the question “Eat already or not?” or “Have you eaten?” and “already” here can only be a perfective aspect marker.

Another way to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence “I eat already” is to move “already” from sentence-final position to pre-verb position and to add “liao” in sentence-final position:

I already eat liao
pronoun adverb verb marker

He already go home (liao)
pronoun adverb verb object/adverb marker

(In the first example, “liao” is not optional, whereas in the second, “liao” is optional; in both Mandarin sentences, 了 is required. At the moment, I do not have an explanation for why “liao” is optional in some cases and required in others.)

In these examples, the syntactical correspondence with the Chinese sentence suggests that pre-verb “already” is not an aspect marker but is instead an adverb, corresponding to Mandarin 已经 (yǐ jīng). In this situation, the presence of adverbial “already” indicates that the action occurred in the past, and “liao” is therefore a perfective aspect marker. We can safely conclude that in Singlish, whenever “already” appears in pre-verb position, it is parsed as an adverb rather than as an aspect marker and the perfective aspect is implied, regardless of whether the verb is conjugated in the past tense, and if sentence-final “liao” is also present, it marks the perfective rather than inchoative aspect. Because pre-verb “already” corresponds to Mandarin 已经 rather than Mandarin 了, the Hokkien “liao” can never appear in pre-verb position. Additionally, “I already eat already” is understood but generally not accepted, due to the repetition of “already”. This is the only scenario in which “liao” cannot be replaced by “already”: when “already” appears elsewhere in the clause as an adverb.

Other verbs or adverbs can be used to disambiguate the function of “already” / “liao”. For example, “start” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the inchoative aspect:

I start eating already
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

Conversely, “finish” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the perfective aspect:

I finish eating already
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

The above sentence has no syntactic equivalent in Mandarin. However, curiously, in Singlish, “finish” can be used as an adverb, analogous to Mandarin 完 (wán):

I eat finish already
pronoun verb adverb marker

Throughout this essay I have emphasized the correspondence of “already” / “liao” and Mandarin 了. However, there is one important difference between “already” / “liao” and 了: Mandarin allows the use of 了 in post-verb position, as in the following example:

He already eat (marker) rice
pronoun adverb verb marker object
He has already eaten.

Singlish, however, never admits “already” / “liao” in post-verb position (unless that also happens to be the sentence-final position). Given that English does not admit “already” in post-verb position except after “be”, “have” (when used as an auxiliary verb) and modal verbs, I believe this is likely to be due to the influence of English syntax.

An additional note is necessary: in his thesis, Lim Heng Liang found there is no statistically significant difference between Chinese and Malay speakers in terms of which positions of “already” were acceptable for a given aspect, except for perfective sentence-initial “already”, which Malay speakers were more likely to accept than Chinese speakers. I would like to note that “already” is in fact acceptable in sentence-initial position in English, but it seems to me that any sentence beginning with “already” is likely to be parsed by a Singlish speaker as English rather than as Singlish, and its validity as a sentence will be analyzed as such. Furthermore, Malay does admit “sudah” (already) in sentence-initial position, but a deeper analysis of such a construction is beyond the scope of this essay.

To sum up, Singlish “already” / “liao” generally functions as either a perfective or inchoative aspect marker, indicating the completion of an action or a change of state, much like 了 in Mandarin. The ambiguous aspect can be clarified by the use of verbs or adverbs, such as “start”, “finish” or even “already” itself, that imply one of these two aspects. Unlike Mandarin 了, “already” / “liao” is acceptable only in sentence-final position, not in post-verb position, possibly as a result of English not accepting “already” in the post-verb position. Additionally, “already” is also acceptable in pre-verb position in Singlish, where it is parsed as an adverb, as it would be in English, rather than as an aspect marker. As such, the syntax of word “already” is a salient example of the multiple linguistic influences present in Singlish.

Works Cited

  • Lim Heng Liang. “Creole Homogeneity in Multiple Substrate Situations: Findings from Singapore English kena, already and until.” Undergraduate thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012. Print.
  • Ross, Claudia; Sheng Ma, Jing-heng. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.