Approximatives in Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese as scalar operators

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 - 26 Jun 2021


Title第二届形式语言学与语言多样性研讨会 (Conference on Formal Linguistics and Language Variations)
LocationGuangdong University of Foreign Studies (Online)
Period26 - 27 June 2021


Previous analyses such as Schwenter (2002), Horn (2002), Nouwen (2006), Amaral (2010) pointed out two meaning components of approximative adverbs like English “almost” and “barely”, namely the proximal component and the polar component. The pattern demonstrated by “almost” and “barely” can in fact be gleaned from Mandarin Chinese cha(yi)dian “almost” and cha(yi)dian-mei ‘almost-NEG’, with the latter being more complicated in having both affirmative and negative interpretation, as in (1a) and (1b). (1) a. Ta cha(yi)dian mei si. b. Ta cha(yi)dian si.he CHA-YI-DIAN not(-have) die he CHA-YI-DIAN die‘He almost died.’ (He didn’t die.) ‘He almost died.’ (He didn’t die.)It has been argued that the canonical use of cha(yi)dian in Mandarin Chinese is on a par with English “almost”. It expresses a reversed polarity interpretation, but there is another use in which cha(yi)dian does not reverse the polarity of the negative proposition or “expletive negatives” (see Kaufmann & Xu 2015). Kaufmann and Xu (2015) appealed to the differentiation between the expletion negation by cha(yi)dianPPI, and the canonical negation by cha(yi)dianNPI, based on the presence or absence of negation and the contextual desirability of the prejacent. Diverting from the claim of Kaufmann and Xu (2015), Shyu and Chang (2015) pointed out that the sole pragmatic criterion of undesirability is too vague for the analysis of cha(yi)dianr mei.English and Mandarin approximatives all occur in the adverb position, but Cantonese gives another pattern of approximatives which occur in the sentence-final position, represented by matzai and gamzai (see e.g. Gao (1980), Li et. al. (1995), Zhang (1997), Li R. (1998), Tang (2006, 2009), Zhang (2007), Lee (2013), Lee C. Y. (2015)). Both matzai and gamzai give a meaning of “almost”, but for the former, it has to be licensed by the negator, with an additional minimized reading on the result triggered. We argue that matzai can be considered as an NPI, with the relation between the trigger and the negative polarity item (NPI) accounted for by semantic scope and do not observe the constraint on c-command of the NPI at the S-structure. A similar feature is also found in gamzai regarding its relation with the negator, but what differs from matzai is that gamzai can also occur in positive contexts, making it more a polarity item. The proximal component of matzai asserts that it is the case that it is close to the low-end of the scale. Another meaning component to capture the additional minimizing meaning of matzai, which we will argue to be the minimizing component. It imposes an effect of having the smallest distance from the low-end of the scale. In this paper, under the model-theoretic assumption (see Israel 2011, Fraancez & Koontz-Garboden 2015), we intend to come up with a scalar model that would unify observations gleaned from approximatives in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. In the case of matzai and gamzai, while their semantics as approximatives determine their proximal meaning, their sensitivity toward polarity makes them encode scalar properties which demonstrate a minimizing property. Moreover, Israel (2011) proposed that the polarity phenomenon that different polarity items appear in different scalar models is related to two semantic properties -- quantitative value (q-value) and informative value (i-value), conventionally encoded in polarity items. Taken as scalar operators, approximates in Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese tend to appeal to low or high quantitative value (q-value) to guarantee their high informative value (i-value), which accounts for their nature to be NPIs or positive polarity items (PPIs). Selected references: Amaral, Patrícia. (2010) “Entailment, assertion, and textual coherence: the case of almost and barely.” Linguistics 48: 525-545.Francez, I., and A. Koontz-Garboden. (2015) “Semantic variation and the grammar of property concepts.” Language 91 (3), 533-563.Israel, Michael. (2011) The grammar of polarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Kaufmann, Magdalena and Xu Ting. (2015) “Almost or almost not? The interaction between cha(yi)dian ‘almost’ and negation in Mandarin Chinese.” In Helena Aparicio, Gallagher Flinn, Kathryn Franich, Joanna Pietraszko, Tamara Vardomskaya (eds.) Proceedings of the 49th annual meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society 209-224Lee Chui Yi. (2016) Revisiting the particles Matzai and Gamzai in Cantonese. National Tsing Hua University, MA dissertation, Shu-ing Shyu and Ya-chun Chuang. (2015) “Approximating to the Event Boundary, (Counter)Factuality and Approximative Cha(yi)dian.” In Ming-Yu Tseng (ed.) Language as Material. National Sun Yat-sen University: The Center for the Humanties, pp. 97-119. Tang, Sze Wing. (2009) The syntax of two approximatives in Cantonese: discontinuous constructions formed with zai6. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 37(2), 227-256.Zhang, Qingwen. (2007) “Yueyu dechengdufuci gamzai ‘almost’ [The Degree Adverb gamzai ‘almost’ in Cantonese].” In CHEUNG Hung Nin, Zhang Shuangqing and Chen Xionggen (eds.) Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Yue Dialects. Beijing: Chinese Academyof Social Sciences Press, 306-318.

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Approximatives in Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese as scalar operators. / Lee, Peppina.

2021. 第二届形式语言学与语言多样性研讨会 (Conference on Formal Linguistics and Language Variations), Guangzhou, China.

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