Form-Meaning Mapping Relations in Chinese Noun Phrases: A Construction-Based Functional Analysis


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date13 Sep 2021


This thesis provides a form–function mapping account of referential properties in Chinese noun phrases by examining the semantic constraints and information status of bare nominals and modified nominals. The referential intent of three main nominal constructions is investigated and discussed: (i) the referential instructions encoded in bare nominal constructions; (ii) the semantic and pragmatic referential constraints of prenominal modifications; and (iii) the referential specificity of different orders of numeral-classifier and modifier constructions. By investigating the semantic and pragmatic specificities of the varied noun phrases, this work provides a construction-based functional account of the varied formal distinctions in nominal constructions and introduces a continuum of referent intent for Chinese nominal expressions. The findings can be taken as a linguistically motivated and corpus-verified input for teaching Chinese as a foreign language.

The three issues concerning referential properties in varied nominal constructions are explored based on corpus data from the Chinese Gigaword Corpus and Chinese Web 2017 Simplified Corpus (zhTenTen). The referential function in bare noun phrases is addressed first in Chapter 4. Bare nouns are unique to and common in Chinese. Unlike English noun phrases, Chinese bare nominals do not encode instructions for hearers to identify the referent. They are used as convenient devices to encode two opposite ends of the referential continuum, referring to either ‘highly identifiable’ entities or entities that ‘there is no need to identify’ (Frajzyngier, Liu and Ye 2020). When a referent is highly identifiable, no instruction needs to be given and a bare noun is used as a minimal form. When there is no need to identify a referent, bare nouns are normally used, corresponding to type-referring or generic nouns. The Bare Noun Paradox is proposed to explicate the referential polarities of bare nouns.

Prenominal modifications in modified noun phrases are addressed in Chapter 5, in which the linear sequencing of modifiers is analyzed as semantically and pragmatically distinct. Prenominal modifications are typically used to narrow down the referential scope of the referent and the linear arrays of modifiers bear significant implications for semantic and pragmatic interpretations. In other words, there are functional constraints concerning different sequences of multiple modifiers preceding the head noun. It is found that the more semantically prototypical and intrinsically characterizing and the more contextually given and informationally non-distinctive the modifier is, the closer it is placed to the head noun. The Sequencing Constraint of Prenominal Modification is proposed to explicate the form–function mapping relations in ordering modifiers.

The third issue concerns the relative order of numeral-classifier (NumCL) and modifier (MOD) in a nominal construction. Based on corpus data, two alternative patterns are analyzed and compared: the numeral-classifier preceding the modifiers versus the modifiers preceding the numeral-classifier. From a construction-based functional perspective, two syntactically and semantically distinct constructions are proposed: the NumCl-first Construction (yīgè-MOD-N) and the MOD-first Construction (MOD-yīgè-N). It is shown that the two constructions differ in referential intent in marking the relative uniqueness and individuality of the referents.

As nominal expressions have always been a major concern in Chinese linguistics, this thesis helps to clarify the form–meaning mapping relations of varied nominal constructions. The findings shed new light on Chinese functional grammar and Chinese language education. First, in view of the continuum of referent intent illustrated in Givón (1993), the study shows explicitly how formal distinctions correspond to referential intents for Chinese noun phrases. It is also significant in showing that semantic prototypicality and information status at the discourse level work together to determine the preferred order of prenominal modifications in general. Second, the proposed form–function mapping accounts of Chinese noun phrases can help learners of Mandarin to make sense of the varied sequences defined as functionally distinct constructions that are associated with different referential meanings.