Grace Teng

Already / Liao as aspect marker in Singlish

This essay was written in the Fall 2012 semester as part of the Indo-European Syntax course at New York University, which was then numbered LING-UA 36. It has been lightly modified from the version I submitted for class.

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:

Example 1

I already eat liao
pronoun adverb verb marker

Example 2

He already go home liao
pronoun adverb verb object/adverb1 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 form2 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 adverb3 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 has already eaten”

He already eat (marker) rice
pronoun adverb verb marker object4

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.

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 word “already” is a salient example of the multiple linguistic influences present in Singlish.

Works Cited


  1. Based on the “Action Verbs” section of Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, it seems that Ross and Sheng Ma would consider the 家 (home) in 回家 (to go home) to be an object of the verb 回 (to return, to go back). I am not so sure but include “object” here for completeness.
  2. Mandarin Chinese, of course, does not inflect verbs; I have chosen to go with this description nonetheless in the absence of a clear alternative, since it is a non-finite verb form in Singlish.
  3. This construction is actually known as the “complement of result”, in which a verb is followed by another verb, with the meaning that the first verb resulted in the second verb happening. For example, 我打破了盘子 (wó dǎ pò lè pán zǐ) “I broke the plate”, lit. “I hit break (perfective aspect marker) plate” has a complement of result construction. For the purposes of this analysis, I have chosen to classify the second verb as an adverb in that it modifies the first verb, but it is clearly a much more complex issue than can be covered here.
  4. 饭 is what Ross and Sheng Ma call a “default object” in Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, “an object that occurs automatically with the verb” whenever an object is required but the action is generalized (Ross and Sheng Ma 78). Another good example is 读书 (dú shū) lit. read book, with 书 being the default object of 读. “他在读书” (tā zài dú shū), “he is reading”, lit. “he (progressive marker) read book”.