Degree Expressions in Chinese
Linmin Zhang
July 2022

Degree expressions in natural language reflect how human cognition performs abstract tasks like taking measurements (i.e., mapping items to degrees on a certain scale) and conducting comparison between measurements. There is a great variation on how different languages encode the notions like degrees and scales and operate comparison, inspiring ongoing theoretical development in degree semantics. This article presents major empirical data on degree expressions in Mandarin Chinese and surveys current research on Chinese-specific phenomena. Compared to well-known English phenomena, Chinese gradable predicates like 高 gāo (‘tall, taller’) seem rather syntactic-category-fluid, and due to the lack of comparative morphemes, their interpretation can be ambiguous between a comparative use and a positive/measurement interpretation. Typical degree expressions in Chinese, including the positive use, comparatives, equatives, and measurement constructions, demonstrate patterns different from those in English. Moreover, not only adjective-like words such as 高 gāo (‘tall, high’), but also property nouns (e.g., 魅力 mèi-lì ‘charm’, 钱 qián ‘money’) and mental verbs (e.g., 喜欢 xǐ-huān ‘like’) have gradable meanings and can be used to form degree expressions. With regard to these empirical phenomena, this article focuses on the following fundamental research questions in the literature: (i) The encoding of comparison: In a language lacking comparative morphemes, how is the distinction established between the positive and the comparative interpretation? (ii) Compositional derivation: How are Chinese comparatives distinct from well-studied English clausal comparatives? (iii) Ontology of degrees: How do various Chinese degree expressions reveal on the underlying ontological assumptions of scales and degrees? Even though many of the research questions are still hotly debated in the existing literature, research on Chinese empirical data already brings profound implications for theoretical development of degree semantics. In particular, this article suggests a new look at variations between languages with vs. without overt comparative morphemes (e.g., English -er) and invites more research on the pragmatics involved in cross-linguistic degree expressions.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006145
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Final version (to appear in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics)
keywords: measurement, comparison, degree semantics, mandarin chinese, degrees, scales, gradable predicates, gradability, positive use of gradable predicates, measurement constructions, comparatives, (numerical) differentials, equatives, degree questions
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