Brief Review – Primary Lessons in Swatow Grammar (Colloquial)

Books teaching Teochew vocabulary to English-speakers are rare (there are quite a few actually), those imparting the Teochew grammar are even more so. 

A few years back we introduced Spoken Teochew, a book first written in 1967 by Alvin and Barbara Koons, who were Fraternal Workers from the American Baptist Churches then working in Hong Kong. More recently there has been a reprint of another Teochew grammar guide, Primary Lessons in Swatow Grammar (Colloquial), whose author Rev. William Ashmore happened to be another American Baptist missionary. 

Who was Rev. Ashmore?

According to his biography, Rev. Ashmore was born iin 1824 n Putnam, Ohio, in the United States. He served briefly as a pastor of First Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ohio, before being appointed with his wife, Martha Sanderson, by the American Baptist Mission Union for work among the Chinese in Siam. They arrived at Bangkok in 1851 to join William Dean (author of First Lessons in the Tie-chiw Dialect 潮州話) and Josiah Goddard (who also had his own book A Chinese & English Vocabulary in the Tie-chiu Dialect) at the American Baptist mission.

In Siam, Rev. Ashmore picked up the Teochew language (the majority of Chinese in Bangkok were Teochews, as they still are) and was engaged in street preaching. After seven years, Rev. Ashmore left Siam for Hong Kong. Due to the death of his wife in 1858 and his own poor health, he returned to his home country in 1860. Four years later, and after marrying for the second time, Rev. Ashmore was finally at Swatow. He strove to fulfill what he believed was his call to work among the Teochew people and spent many years of his life in the Teochew prefecture until the 1890s. 

Primary Lessons in Swatow Grammar 

Primary Lessons in Swatow Grammar was published by Rev. Ashmore in Swatow in 1884, despite suffering partial loss of sight for a prolonged period because of ophthalmia. He accomplished this with the assistance of Rev. William Duffus of the English Presbyterian Mission, who had charge of a small press. (Only in the previous year had Rev. Duffus printed his English-Chinese Vocabulary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Swatow.

In his own words, Rev. Ashmore did not intend for his book to set forth "the usages and principles of Chinese grammar in general, but of the Swatow dialect (as the missionaries referred to spoken Teochew) only". Furthermore, he meant for it to be "an elementary work designed for beginners" to "help any of them to tide over some of the difficulties which meet them at the outset". We have a different opinion on this, which will be explained at the end.

 After an introduction to the Teochew vernacular (including variations in pronunciation between the "Hu city" (府城, i.e. the old Teochew prefectural city that is now Chaozhou city)/Thenghai (澄海) and Teoyor (潮陽), the book gives an interesting overview of what is Teochew grammar.

Rev Ashmore tells us that grammar is called Bun Huap (文法, "literary method") in Teochew. Under Teochew grammar, words are divided into two general classes which are called sit-ji (實字, true or substantive words) and hu-ji (虚, empty words). The former are words that contain "anything discernible" and comprise all nouns and sometimes verbs; the latter are words that have "nothing discernible", including all auxiliaries, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections etc. Besides this, words are also classified as uah-ji (活字, living characters) and si-ji (死字, dead characters). Has your curiosity been piqued?

The main body of Primary Lessons consists of 36 lessons, whose headers are shown below"

  1. Pronouns
  2. Short sentences
  3. Short sentences
  4. Declension of Pronouns
  5. Sentences
  6. Other Pronominal Words
  7. Substantive Verb
  8. Possessive Verb
  9. Interrogatives
  10. Time
  11. Place, Direction, &c
  12. Quantity
  13. The Article
  14. Prepositions and equivalents
  15. Conjunctions
  16. Adverbs
  17. Interjections
  18. Adjectives
  19. Resemblance
  20. Difference
  21. Nouns
  22. Gender
  23. Number
  24. Verbs
  25. Conjugational Equivalents
  26. Examples in the Active Voice
  27. Various Passive Forms
  28. Mood Equivalents
  29. Tense Equivalents
  30. Some Usages of Syntax
  31. Growth of Sentences
  32. Bits of Description
  33. Abbreviations
  34. Slang
  35. Various Questions
  36. Words used in teaching and arguing

    In addition to these lessons, there is an appended list of syllables representing the sounds used in pronouncing Teochew that was prepared by Rev. S.B. Patridge.

    Now why do we think Primary Lessons is not ideal for (absolute) beginners? One reason is that the lessons contain no Chinese characters at all. The Teochew terms are expressed solely in romanised form using a system devised by the 19th century Western missionaries (as illustrated below). Because of this, you actually need some command of spoken Teochew before you are able to comprehend the romanised Teochew text.

    At the same time studying the dissected grammar parts of a language is not exactly the best way to pick it up. As the lesson headers suggest, Rev. Ashmore covered his subject rather comprehensively. Unless prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, interjections and adjectives are daily bread and butter stuff for you, you might actually end up more confused. It is advised that you begin your learning journey by watching videos (which provides visual cues and usuage context), listening to conversations, before working to expand vocabulary. 

    Having said all these, Primary Lessons is a great companion if you speak Teochew at some level and wish to challenge yourself to bring your spoken Teochew to a higher level. It will help to refresh some expressions and clarify the rules of the language that you may already subconsciously know.

    Learning to speak and becoming fluent in Teochew is not an insurmountable task, if an American under the conditions of the 19th century was able to do so and even write a book on its grammar.

    You can find a preview of Primary Lessons on Google Books. The book can also be purchased on 


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