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Meaning change in Chinese: A numeral phrase construction from adjectives to superlatives to definite descriptions

Dawei Jin and Jun Chen
From the journal Linguistics

Abstract

This paper analyzes a hitherto unnoticed semantic change process in Chinese, in which lexical (adjectival) materials develop into superlative operators, and subsequently turn into definiteness markers. Our analysis focuses on the semantic factors that underlie this meaning change trajectory. Specifically, we argue that frequent association of gradable adjectives with superlative implication leads to pragmatic strengthening in which the superlative implication conventionally enters the literal meaning. Furthermore, we show that a further change in the extension of the nominal part of superlative phrases leads to a maximality reanalysis that is compatible with the semantics of definite NPs. This paper contributes to the burgeoning field of applying truth-conditional semantics to theories of grammaticalization.

Acknowledgements

We would like to express our deep gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers of Linguistics for their detailed and comprehensive comments. One of the co-authors also hopes to thank Jürgen Bohnemeyer, without whose numerous comments and tremendous efforts this paper would not have taken shape. We are further indebted to Lihua Xu, Jeff Good and Muye (Andy) Zhang for their valuable feedback and help at various points of the preparation of our manuscript. Finally, many thanks to the audiences at the Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium (UnderLing 2014), the 39th Penn Linguistics Colloquium (PLC 2015), the 22nd International Conference in Historical Linguistics (ICHL 2015), the 9th Conference of the European Association of Chinese Linguistics (EACL 2015), and the 52nd Chicago Linguistics Society (CLS 2016). It goes without saying that all the errors in this paper are our own.

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Published Online: 2018-05-30
Published in Print: 2018-06-26

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