A study of Cantonese restrictive sentence-final particles under relativist semantics

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)31A_Invited conference paper (refereed items)Yespeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2019


TitleInternational Symposium on Formal Approaches to Meaning in Chinese
LocationBeijing Language and Culture University
Period22 - 23 June 2019


It is widely acknowledged that Cantonese has a rich repertoire of sentence-final particles (SFPs), with the number identified ranging from 30 (see e.g. Kwok 1984, Law S. P. 1990, Luke 1990) to 70 (see Leung 1992/2005), and only around seven in Mandarin (see Hu 1981, Li and Thompson 1981), with frequent co-occurrence of SFPs with their adverb counterparts. On the basis of restrictive adverbs and restrictive SFPs, I would argue that the co-occurrence of adverbs and SFPs has no redundancy in meaning, with the latter triggering additional stance presuppositions. Speakers’ attitudes have given rise to distinct syntactic projections as C0 of CP or Attitude0 of AttitudeP. To support the above claim, I will appeal to two Cantonese restrictive SFPs, namely zaa3 ‘only’ and ze1 ‘only’, which are considered to have a meaning closest to English “only” (see e.g. Kwok 1984, S. P. Law 1990, Matthews & Yip 1994, Luke & Nancarrow 1997, Fung 2000, Leung 1992/2005, A. Law 2004, Li 2006, Sybesma & Li 2007, Wakefield 2010). What is complicated and unique about zaa3 and ze1 is that on top of the core semantics ‘restriction’, each of them conveys distinct presuppositional meanings. (1) Johnhai6jin6gau3zo6lei5 zaa3. (cited from A. Law 2004) Johnberesearchassistant ZAA‘John is only a research assistant.’(2) Gwai3 hai6 gwai3-zo2 di1, bat1gwo3 dou1 hai6 jat1baak3 man1 ze1. (cited from Fung 2000)expensive be expensive-PERF a-bit but all be one-hundred dollar ZE “(True,) it’s a bit expensive. Even so, it’s just one hundred dollars only.”The zaa3-sentence in (1) is understood as a neutral statement in the sense that John is only a research assistant but not of any rank higher than that (see Sybesma & Li 2007). Yet, two debatable issues arise from the sentence. The use of zaa3 will trigger a “negative” meaning of “insufficiency” it triggered (see Kwok 1984), which is in some cases considered to be attributed to its assumption of a higher value on the evaluation scale (see Fung 2000). For ze1 in (2), the focus value “one hundred dollars” is a price which is still higher than a standard of expensiveness but is already lower than presupposed, therefore generating the implication that the price is not too excessive and still acceptable. Therefore, one distinct sense of ze1 is “downplaying”, which assumes a lower value on the relevant scale.It will be shown that although zaa3 and ze1 share the core semantics of “restriction” (see e.g. Fung 2000, Wakefield 2010 and Li Y. N. 2014), they cannot be the same semantically. They are distinctive in terms of scalar presuppositions and dependence on speaker/addressee stance, which is critical for scalar restrictive SFPs. To account for the role of speaker/addressee stance presuppositions in determining the semantics of the Cantonese SFPs, Lasersohn’s (2009, 2017) relativist semantics is adopted. Lasersohn (2009, 2017) argued that the role for context is not just for fixing the contents of sentences on particular occasions of use but also for determining the truth values of those contents once they are fixed. Put differently, as early as Kaplan (1989), it was pointed out that context plays a role not just in determining content but also in assigning truth values to contents. To illustrate how contexts play a role in assigning truth values to contents, Lasersohn appeals to examples like (3).(3) Licorice is tasty. (cited from Lasersohn 2009, 2017) Lasersohn pointed out that if John says, “Licorice is tasty” and Mary says, “No, licorice is not tasty”, examples like (3) would be a challenge to conventional semantic theories. In order to account for this, Lasersohn proposed a framework of relativist semantics. Under relativist semantic theory, denotations are assigned to expressions relative to contexts, worlds, and individuals. [[α]]c,w,i is written for the denotation of α relative to context c, world w, and individual i. Each context c must specify at least an “agent”, or speaker/author, notated A(c); a world W(c); and a “judge”, J(c), which will be the individual on whom the truth value of sentences depends. If two contexts have different judges, that is, if J(c) ≠ J(c’), it might happen that [|tasty(the-licorice)|]C(w, J(c)) = 1 and [|tasty(the-licorice)|]C’(w, J(c’)) = 0. Along the line of Lasersohn’s (2009, 2017) relativist semantics, the basic semantic differences between zaa3 ‘only’ and ze1 can be derived. Cantonese zaa3 ‘only’ is considered to express a neutral statement of restrictiveness, which is compatible with both scalar and non-scalar contexts. In contrary, ze1 ‘only’ can occur only in scalar contexts, and trigger two presupposed values which rely on speaker/addressee stances. Such a difference in their basic semantics is also revealed in their syntax, with zaa3 occupying a v0 of vP position and ze1 the C0/Attitude0 of CP/AttitudeP which involves speaker and addressee. The part with which zaa3 overlaps with ze1 is the assertion part, which expresses their core semantics of “restriction”. In the case of ze1, to account for the lower ranking value presupposed by the addressee, it is assumed that the sentence without ze1 ‘only’, namely p, is presupposed to be true, and it stands in the belief relation to two separate sentence contents  and δ.  is presupposed by the addressee and takes a lower value on the scale than that of p. With the relation of S <Sp between  and p, the addressee holds a stance presupposition that [|Excessive(p)|] is true, giving the so-called “excessive” or “too much” reading claimed in previous analyses. On the other hand, the speaker holds a stance presupposition of Sp <Sδ, which holds a stance presupposition that [|Excessive(p)|] is false. With two different stance presuppositions, it is possible for the speaker and the addressee to hold a contradictory value regarding “the asserted value is excessive”, deriving the “downplaying” effect. It is through the additional stance presuppositions that make ze1 distinct from zaa3, resulting in their different syntactic projections.

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Citation Format(s)

A study of Cantonese restrictive sentence-final particles under relativist semantics. / 李宝伦.

2019. International Symposium on Formal Approaches to Meaning in Chinese, Beijing, China.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)31A_Invited conference paper (refereed items)Yespeer-review