A Semantic Study of Quantifying Expressions Henduo and Henshao in Mandarin Chinese

漢語量化詞 "很多" 和 "很少" 的語義研究

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date7 Sep 2022


It is well acknowledged that English many and few can serve as an adjective or a determiner, with both appearing in the prenominal positions, which leads to an ambiguity between the modifier type and the quantifier type of expressions (Bennett 1974, Westerståhl 1984, Löbner 1987). Partee (1989, 2004) further concludes that many and few can be cardinal or proportional in reading, with the former as either an adjective or a determiner, and the latter a determiner only.

With respect to Mandarin Chinese, henduo and henshao are generally taken to be the counterparts of many and few in English (Kuo & Yu 2012, Paul 2021). As early as Chao (1968), henduo and henshao are shown to demonstrate asymmetric syntactic distributions with different morpho-syntactic properties (Zhu 1989, Wang 1995, Qiu 1999, Yue 2005, Paul 2021). Along this line, we further argue that, unlike English many and few, the interpretations of henduo and henshao are not determined by a simple ambiguity between an attributive adjective and a determiner, but by a diversification among an attributive adjective, a predicative adjective, an adverb (A-quantifier), and a determiner (D-quantifier), leading to various tendencies to the cardinal reading and the proportional reading.

This study probes into the quantificational structures of henduo and henshao, with their morpho-syntactic properties and semantic interpretations investigated by means of empirical methods, including a corpus analysis and sentence judgement tasks. Empirical and theoretical analyses reveal the following points.

Firstly, henduo and henshao are found to demonstrate diversification among serving as an attributive adjective (1a), a predicative adjective (1b), an adverb (1c), and a determiner (1d).

(1) a. Henduo/?Henshao  ren        chi-le     pingguo.
         many/few               person  eat-ASP  apple
         ‘Many/Few people ate apples.’
     b. Ta  chi   de    pingguo  henduo/henshao.
         he  eat   DE   apple       many/few
         ‘The apples he ate are many/few.’
     c. Ta *henduo/henshao  chi   pingguo.
         he  many/rarely          eat   apple
         Intended: ‘He often/rarely eats apples.’
     d. Henduo/Henshao  xuexiao  lai-le          jiazhang.
         many/few              school    come-ASP  parent
         ‘Many/Few schools came parents.’

As for henduo, it dominantly functions as an attributive adjective and a predicative adjective. Under the attributive modification, it is highly acceptable to modify both subjects and objects, which suggests that henduo mainly serves as a modifier in Mandarin Chinese. In addition, when combining with topicalized NPs, henduo functions as a D-quantifier to denote quantificational notions. With respect to henshao, it primarily serves as an adverb and a predicative adjective. Under its dominant adverbial modification, henshao can modify both the VP to which it attaches and the existential verb you ‘exist’, giving the reading of English rarely rather than few. This suggests that henshao mainly functions as an A-quantifier in its quantificational denotation. In addition, the attributive use is argued to be restricted in henshao due to the definiteness effect on subjects in Mandarin Chinese. The acceptability of henshao in sentence-initial positions can be improved by the covert appearance of the existential verb you ‘exist’ between henshao and NPs, with henshao turned into an adverb modifying the verb you ‘exist’.

Secondly, the diverse syntactic distributions of henduo and henshao lead to variation in their semantic interpretations, resulted from individual syntax-semantics mapping. As henduo mainly serves as an attributive adjective, the cardinal reading appears as its dominant reading, regardless of whether henduo modifies subjects or the objects, thereby suggesting that henduo is of the modifier type rather than the quantifier type. On the contrary, the preference for the proportional reading is argued to be restricted in henduo, which appears when [henduo + NP] is licensed by the topic feature given in [Head, TopicP], with henduo analyzed as the quantifier type of expression, and thus a QP is projected. What is triggered is a tripartite structure (Kamp 1981, Heim 1982, Partee 1995) required in the abstraction of the proportional reading, with henduo serving as the operator. On the other hand, with respect to henshao, as it mainly appears as an A-quantifier, the proportional reading is argued to be the dominant reading in henshao. The preference for the proportional reading is also possible when either a QP or a TopicP is projected in sentence-initial positions, with henshao argued to be of the quantifier type, functioning as the operator in the tripartite structure. In contrast, the dominant cardinal reading in henduo is argued to be restricted in henshao, which mainly appears when it modifies objects, with henshao serving as a weak quantifier denoting indefinite properties under its attributive modification.

Based on these findings, it is argued that henduo and henshao do not contribute a contrastive pair as that of English many and few, as henduo and henshao perform diverse morpho-syntactic properties and semantic interpretations, with the syntax-semantics mapping of henduo and henshao generalized as follows. For henduo, the dominant cardinal reading supports its primary function as an attributive adjective, while the restricted preference for proportional reading is possible when [henduo + NP] is licensed by the topic feature given in [Head, TopicP]. With respect to henshao, the proportional reading is argued to be its dominant reading, given that henshao mainly serves as an A-quantifier, whereas the dominant cardinal reading on a par with henduo is not possible in henshao, given its restricted function as an attributive adjective.

Moreover, the comparison of quantifying expressions in Mandarin Chinese and English suggests that henduo and henshao cannot be taken as equivalents of English many and few. As for henduo, it mainly appears as an attributive adjective and a predicative adjective, and hence can be generally regarded as the counterpart of many in terms of syntactic properties. However, as many is argued to be ambiguous between the cardinal reading and the proportional reading (Partee 1989, 2004, Cohen 2001, Greer 2014, Romero 2015, 2021), their different quantificational tendencies suggest that henduo cannot be taken as the equivalent of many. On the other hand, as henshao primarily functions as an adverb, it should be analyzed as the equivalent of English rarely under its dominant adverbial use, while be taken as the counterpart of few under its restricted attributive modification.

Generalizations above may lead to an implication that quantificational notions are denoted differently in English and Mandarin Chinese. As for English, the semantic interpretations of many and few play an essential role in determining their syntactic properties. In contrast, the syntax-semantics mapping in henduo and henshao suggests that syntax and grammatical components play a crucial role in determining the denotational meaning of quantifying expressions in Mandarin Chinese, which cannot be overridden by semantics or related meaning components.