Duration Incorporated Construction: A Cognitive Constructional Account Based on Behavioral Profile Evidence


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date21 Dec 2023


The thesis addresses the issue of form-meaning mismatch in the sequence [Verb + Duration Phrase + de + Noun Phrase], such as dú le yītiān de shū (读了一天的书) ‘read books for one day.’ In the example, the duration phrase (DurP) yītiān ‘one day,’ semantically an event duration, is syntactically coded as a nominal modifier. Given that the DurP is formally incorporated into the object NP by the modification marker de, the sequence is named Duration Incorporated Construction (DIC).

This study proposes a corpus-based constructional account for the form-meaning mismatch in the DIC based on results from a Behavioral Profile (BP) study. The DIC is defined as a unique form-meaning pair, in line with the distinctive features identified by the BP study. By delineating the constructional specificities, the study further explores the functional motivation and the cognitive mechanism involved in the DurP-incorporation.

To offer an empirically grounded and cognitively motivated account, the BP study draws on constructional instances retrieved from a 15-million-word corpus. The DIC is compared with the non-incorporated counterpart, namely, the non-duration-incorporated construction (NDIC), in the form [Verb + Duration Phrase + Noun Phrase]. The two constructions are formally similar except for the use of the modification marker de. One thousand two hundred sixty-six instances of the two constructions (395 for the DIC and 871 for the NDIC) are retrieved from the corpus and annotated with constructional and collocational features. The BP evidence reveals that the DIC differs from the NDIC in constructional constraints and componential and collocational preferences.

Regarding structural difference, the DIC differs from the NDIC regarding the modification marker de and the syntactic status of the DurPs. The DIC and the NDIC are thus structurally re-analyzed and differentiated, with the former taking the syntactic structure of V-NP and the latter V-C-XP. Based on the BP evidence, the DIC is empirically justified as an independent construction encoding a distinct constructional meaning.

With regard to functional motivations, the DIC is argued to functionally convert the DurP from event duration to a quantifier of the object N to meet the “heavy added information constraint” (Chafe, 1987, p. 37). While the DurP delimits the reported event by coercing a quantified internal argument in the DIC, the NDIC formally encodes a verbal complement of duration. The corpus evidence shows that the DIC and the NDIC expel other event-delimiting measures, such as verbs that entail a natural endpoint and objects containing other quantifiers. The mutually exclusive distribution between the DurPs and other event-delimiting measures indicates that the DurPs in the two constructions function as an event delimiter in different ways.

This functional difference of the DurPs between the DIC and NDIC is corroborated by the BP results concerning the object properties in the two constructions. While both reject quantified object Ns, the DIC differs from the NDIC regarding definite object Ns. The DIC rejects definite object Ns in the object position because they cannot be preceded by quantifier DurPs. On the other hand, the NDIC is compatible with definite Ns, including proper names, pronouns, and nouns modified by demonstratives. This is because the DurPs in the NDIC denote event durations and measure the event rather than the object N. In other words, in the DIC, the DurP measures the event by quantifying the direct object, which rejects measured events and definite nouns as objects. In contrast, the DurP in the NDIC measures the V-O event, which rejects measured events but not definite object Ns.

In addition, DurP-incorporation is formally marked by the modification marker de, taken to be an Integration Operator in this research, which may coerce peripheral arguments of a verb, such as duration, reason, etc., into the object-modifier position to form an object-NP. Therefore, de-integration reduces the formal complexity of a clause, encoding a duration-specified event in a more parsimonious structure, V-NP, compared with a Verb-Complement-Object structure.

The formal operation in DurP-incorporation is further accounted for as resulting from the conceptual process of Event-to-Participant Attribute Transfer (EPAT), a cognitive mechanism that allows eventive adverbials to be coded as prenominal modifiers. This cognitive manipulation can also be found in Chinese expressions, such as hē mènjiǔ (喝闷酒) ‘drink glumly,’ kāi yèchē (开夜车) ‘drive at night,’ dǎ zuǐzhàng (打嘴仗) ‘fight verbally,’ zǒu yuānwǎng lù (走冤枉路) ‘walk some distance in vain,’ etc., where an eventive complement is syntactically expressed as the prenominal modifier of the object-N. As shown in the English translations, the adverbial elements, either manner, time adverbial, or instrument, are transferred into modifiers of the object Ns. The frequent use of these expressions indicates that the instances of EPAT abound in Chinese. By showing related instances in other languages, the thesis proves that EPAT is a common cognitive mechanism across languages.

The current research provides a principled functional explanation of the puzzling form-meaning mismatch in the DIC as a constructional unit, which is cognitively motivated and empirically verified. It proposes EPAT, a special case of metonym, to account for the form-meaning mismatch for the first time from the perspective of cognitive motivations. By conducting a BP study of large corpus samples with fine-grained annotations and statistical findings, the research identifies the structural and functional distinctions between the two seemingly synonymous structures. Theoretically, the proposed account consolidates the basic assumptions of Construction Grammar that formal distinctions are associated with functional distinctions. Methodologically, the study demonstrates how the Behavioral Profile approach can be a robust tool for exploring linguistic issues and teasing apart constructional peculiarities. Ultimately, the research contributes to the advancement of Chinese linguistics by offering an empirically valid and cognitively revealing answer to the long-debated syntactic issue.