The Semantic Interpretation of Wh-Phrases in Mandarin Chinese and its Possible Application in Machine Translation


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Changwei NIU


Awarding Institution
  • Haihua PAN (Supervisor)
Award date4 Jan 2017


Linguistic recognition is the crux of computer processing of natural languages, but the ambiguity and complexity of languages make such recognition quite difficult. A perennial problem in translation from Mandarin Chinese concerns the distinction between interrogative and non-interrogative uses of wh-phrases. Up to now, no effective process has been proposed for recognizing interrogative and non-interrogative uses of Mandarin wh-phrases in machine translation systems.

Huang (1982) holds that, outside the typical negative polarity context, indefinite (non-interrogative) wh-phrases can be used together with non-factive verbs, which bear the [Q] feature. Cheng (1991) analyzes wh-phrases as variables, and summarizes the binding operators of wh-phrases as follows: a) Qwh…wh (interrogative reading); b) Qyes/no…wh (polarity/existential reading); c) Neg…wh (interrogative or polarity/existential reading); and d) wh…dou (universal reading). Li (1992) identifies both semantic constraints and syntactic constraints that determine the functions of Mandarin wh-phrases, and she summarizes the contexts in which indefinite wh-phrases occur as follows: a) where the truth value is negated, b) where the truth value is not fixed, and c) where the truth value is not asserted directly.

Syntactically, the relation between an indefinite wh-phrase and its licensor should be viewed as a binder-variable relation, and the binder must c-command the variable that it binds. Lin (1996, 1998a) divides existential polarity wh-phrases (EPWs) into three kinds. The first kind occurs in negative sentences, question sentences, and if-clauses. The second kind occurs in epistemic modal environments. The third kind occurs in future environments. Wu (2000) identifies four affective contexts that can contain indefinite wh-phrases in Mandarin Chinese: a) Yes-no questions that license an existential quantifier, b) Sentences containing the adverb dou or quan as the licensor of a universal quantifier, c) Sentences containing a negative adverb as the licensor of a negative polarity item, and d) Sentences containing if as the licensor of an existential quantifier. While these analyses can account for most of the environments in which Mandarin non-interrogative wh¬phrases occur, environments like rhetorical questions are not taken into account. Furthermore, no previous analysis has presented a unified semantic account for the interpretation of the interrogative and non-interrogative wh-phrases in Mandarin Chinese.

This thesis focuses on the semantic interpretation of wh-phrases in Mandarin Chinese within the framework of Optimality Theory (OT). It demonstrates that wh-phrases with an existential interpretation appear in the environment of uncertain truth values, including yes-no questions, A-not-A questions, complex conditional sentences, and non-factive verbal sentences, as well as in negative environments, including negative sentences and rhetorical questions. Wh-phrases with a universal interpretation are usually bound by dou (都) or quan (全), precede ye (也), and appear in bare conditionals. After summarizing the rules governing [+wh]-verbs, the stress distribution of dou, ma, ‘V+Neg.+V’, complex conditional sentences, non-factive words, overt negation, covert negation, adverbial operators and dual-wh-phrases, the thesis presents an OT-based analysis of the semantic interpretation of Mandarin wh-phrases. Four constraints governing Mandarin wh-phrase interpretation are proposed and they are ranked as follows: Universal Operator Constraint≫ Non-assertive Environment Constraint, Negative Environment Constraint ≫ Necessary Interrogative Constraint. A recognition module for Mandarin wh-phrases is also proposed based on the constraint hierarchy above. This module can be put into practice to guide the interpretation of Mandarin wh-phrases and it may help improve the quality of Chinese-English machine translation systems.