Volume 20, Issue 2
  • ISSN 1606-822X
  • E-ISSN: 2309-5067



This paper investigates the semantics of an understudied Mandarin numeral construction type, here dubbed -NumPs (i.e. number word < ‘big’ < noun). Drawing primarily upon evidence from online Mandarin corpora, we argue for a taxonomy of this construction that comprises two distinct interpretations, based on the scalarity of the morpheme and its composition with the other constituents within the construction. Specifically, one reading of -NumPs is a degree superlative reading, in which relates a domain of comparison, denoted by the nominal argument, to a plural group of entities ranked along the upper bound of a contextually determined scale. Second, -NumPs have a definite description reading, in which behaves on a par with a maximality-denoting iota operator, such that the construction refers to the maximal group individual that satisfies the property denoted by the nominal argument. We further show that at the discourse level, both readings encode the way the speaker subjectively construes the situation being described, indicating the speaker’s evaluative attitude towards the significance of said situation. This pragmatic condition distinguishes the use of -NumPs against that of alternative, truth-conditionally identical numeral construction types. We further propose that in cases where the nominal component includes a degree argument, a process of degree intensification enables the definite description reading to verify the same situation as is licensed under a superlative semantics. We show that this process provides a way to make sense of the systematic ambiguity available to -NumPs, and allows us to capture its polysemy.

Available under the CC BY 4.0 license.

Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...



  1. Aihara, Masahiko
    2009 The scope of -est: Evidence from Japanese. Natural Language Semantics171. 341–367. doi:  10.1007/s11050‑009‑9046‑6
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s11050-009-9046-6 [Google Scholar]
  2. Brinton, Laurel & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs
    2005Lexicalization and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:  10.1017/CBO9780511615962
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511615962 [Google Scholar]
  3. Canavan, Alexandra & Zipperlen, George
    1996CALLFRIEND Mandarin Chinese-Mainland Dialect LDC96S55. Philadelphia: Linguistic Data Consortium. (https://catalog.ldc.upenn.edu/LDC96S55) (Accessed2018-11-22)
    [Google Scholar]
  4. Carlson, Greg
    2015Naming, noncompositionality and etymology. (Talk presented at the27th European Summer School in Logic, Language and Information (ESSLLI 2015), Barcelona, 3–14 August, 2015.)
    [Google Scholar]
  5. Chen, Jun
    2016 Discourse prominence induces semantic change: Evidence from Chinese. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics22(1). 71–80.
    [Google Scholar]
  6. Cheng, Lisa & Heycock, Caroline & Zamparelli, Roberto
    2017 Two levels of definiteness. In Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka (ed.), Proceedings of GLOW in Asia111, 79–93. Singapore: The National University of Singapore.
    [Google Scholar]
  7. Coppock, Elizabeth & Josefson, Christian
    2015 Completely bare Swedish superlatives. In Eva Csipak & Hedde Zeijlstra (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung191, 179–196. Göttingen: Universität Göttingen.
    [Google Scholar]
  8. Dayal, Veneeta
    1997 Free choice and ever: Identity and free choice readings. In Lawson, Aaron (ed.), Proceedings of SALT71, 99–116. Stanford: Stanford University. doi:  10.3765/salt.v7i0.2787
    https://doi.org/10.3765/salt.v7i0.2787 [Google Scholar]
  9. Farkas, Donka & Bruce, Kim
    2010 On reacting to assertions and polar questions. Journal of Semantics271. 81–118. doi:  10.1093/jos/ffp010
    https://doi.org/10.1093/jos/ffp010 [Google Scholar]
  10. Farkas, Donka & Kiss, Katalin E.
    2000 On the comparative and absolute readings of superlatives. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory181. 417–455. doi:  10.1023/A:1006431429816
    https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006431429816 [Google Scholar]
  11. Fitzgibbons, Natalia & Sharvit, Yael & Gajewski, Jon
    2008 Plural superlatives and distributivity. In Friedman, Tova & Ito, Satoshi (eds.), Semantics and Linguistic Theory181. 302–318. https://hdl.handle.net/1813/13041
    [Google Scholar]
  12. Giannakidou, Anastasia
    2001 The meaning of free choice. Linguistics and Philosophy241. 659–735. doi:  10.1023/A:1012758115458
    https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1012758115458 [Google Scholar]
  13. Heim, Irene
    1995Superlatives: A case study on the division of labor of syntax and semantics. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Manuscript.)
    [Google Scholar]
  14. 2015 Definiteness and indefiniteness. In Von Heusinger Klaus & Maienborn, Claudia & Portner, Paul (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, vol.21, 996–1025. Berlin: de Gruyter.
    [Google Scholar]
  15. Heine, Bernd & Kuteva, Tanya
    2002World lexicon of grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 10.1017/CBO9780511613463
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511613463 [Google Scholar]
  16. Jin, Dawei & Chen, Jun
    2018 Meaning change in Chinese: A numeral phrase construction from adjectives to superlatives to definite descriptions. Linguistics56(3). 599–651. 10.1515/ling‑2018‑0009
    https://doi.org/10.1515/ling-2018-0009 [Google Scholar]
  17. Kadmon, Nirit & Landman, Fred
    1993 Any. Linguistics and Philosophy16(4). 353–422. 10.1007/BF00985272
    https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00985272 [Google Scholar]
  18. Kennedy, Christopher & McNally, Louise
    2005 Scale structure, degree modification, and the semantics of gradable predicates. Language81(2). 345–381. 10.1353/lan.2005.0071
    https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.2005.0071 [Google Scholar]
  19. Klein, Ewan
    1980 A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy4(1). 1–45. doi:  10.1007/BF00351812
    https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00351812 [Google Scholar]
  20. Kneale, William
    1962 Modality de dicto and de re. In Nagel, Ernest & Suppes, Patrick & Tarski, Alfred (eds.), Logic, methodology and philosophy of science, 622–633. San Francisco: Stanford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  21. Krasikova, Sveta
    2012 Definiteness in superlatives. In Aloni, M. & Kimmelman, V. & Roelofsen, F. & Sassoon, G. & Schulz, K. & Westera, M. (eds.), Logic, language and meaning (Proceedings of the 18th Amsterdam Colloquium), 411–420. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam. https://www.springer.com/la/book/9783642314810. 10.1007/978‑3‑642‑31482‑7_42
    https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-31482-7_42 [Google Scholar]
  22. Kripke, Saul
    1980Naming and necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  23. Langacker, Ronald
    2007 Cognitive grammar. In Geeraerts, Dirk & Cuyckens, Hubert (eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics, 421–462. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  24. Li, Shengmei
    2003 The usage of “da” in the “ten da popular songs” structure. Xiuci Xuexi [Rhetoric Learning] 13(5). 14–15.
    [Google Scholar]
  25. Li, Xiaoyun
    2004 Characteristics of the nouns in “num + da + noun” phrases. Journal of Qinghai Normal University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 61. 112–114.
    [Google Scholar]
  26. Link, Godehard
    1983 The logical analysis of plurals and mass terms: A lattice-theoretic approach. In Bäuerle, Rainer & Schwarze, Christoph & Von Stechow, Arnim (eds.), Meaning, use and interpretation of language, 302–323. Berlin: de Gruyter. 10.1515/9783110852820.302
    https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110852820.302 [Google Scholar]
  27. McEnery, Tony & Xiao, Richard
    2004The Lancaster corpus of Mandarin Chinese: A corpus for monolingual and contrastive language study. eprints.lancs.ac.uk/65/ (Accessed2018-11-29.)
    [Google Scholar]
  28. McNabb, Yaron
    2012 The syntax and semantics of degree modification. Chicago: University of Chicago. (Doctoral dissertation.)
    [Google Scholar]
  29. Partee, Barbara
    1995 Lexical semantics and compositionality. In Gleitman, Lila & Liberman, Mark (eds.), An invitation to cognitive science: Language, vol.11, 311–360. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  30. Paul, Waltraud
    2010 Adjectives in Mandarin Chinese: The rehabilitation of a much ostracized category. In Hofherr, Patricia & Matushansky, Ora (eds.), Adjectives: Formal analyses in syntax and semantics, 115–152. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. doi:  10.1075/la.153
    https://doi.org/10.1075/la.153 [Google Scholar]
  31. Rett, Jessica
    2014The semantics of evaluativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:  10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199602476.001.0001
    https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199602476.001.0001 [Google Scholar]
  32. Sharvit, Yael & Stateva, Penka
    2000 Against ‘long’ movement of the superlative operator. Proceedings of SALT101, 185–202. Ithaca: Cornell University. doi:  10.3765/salt.v10i0.3110
    https://doi.org/10.3765/salt.v10i0.3110 [Google Scholar]
  33. Sharvy, Richard
    1980 A more general theory of definite descriptions. The Philosophical Review89(4). 607–624. doi:  10.2307/2184738
    https://doi.org/10.2307/2184738 [Google Scholar]
  34. Simpson, Andrew & Soh, Hooi Ling & Nomoto, Hiroki
    2011 Bare classifiers and definiteness: A crosslinguistic investigation. Studies in Language351. 168–193. doi:  10.1075/sl.35.1.10sim
    https://doi.org/10.1075/sl.35.1.10sim [Google Scholar]
  35. Stateva, Penka
    2002 How different are different degree constructions. Storrs: University of Connecticut. (Doctoral dissertation.)
    [Google Scholar]
  36. Su, Danjie
    2017 Significance as a lens: Understanding the Mandarin ba construction through discourse adjacent alternation. Journal of Pragmatics1171. 204–230. doi:  10.1016/j.pragma.2017.06.019
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2017.06.019 [Google Scholar]
  37. Szabolcsi, Anna
    1986 Comparative superlatives. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics81. 245–266.
    [Google Scholar]
  38. Tai, James
    1982 Relevant categorical distinctions in Chinese. Papers from the Regional Meeting of Chicago Linguistic Society181. 495–506.
    [Google Scholar]
  39. 1994 Chinese classifier systems and human categorization. In Chen, Matthew & Tzeng, Ovid , In honor of William S.-Y. Wang: Interdisciplinary studies on language and language change, 479–494. Taipei: Pyramid.
    [Google Scholar]
  40. Tao, Hongyin & Xiao, Richard
    2012The UCLA Chinese Corpus (2nd edn). Lancaster: UCREL. www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/corpus/UCLA/ (Accessed2018-11-30.)
    [Google Scholar]
  41. Traugott, Elizabeth Closs & Trousdale, Graeme
    2013Constructionalization and constructional changes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199679898.001.0001/acprof-9780199679898. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199679898.001.0001
    https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199679898.001.0001 [Google Scholar]
  42. Vendler, Zeno
    1967Linguistics in philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 10.7591/9781501743726
    https://doi.org/10.7591/9781501743726 [Google Scholar]
  43. Verhagen, Arie
    2007 Construal and perspectivization. In Geeraerts, Dirk & Cuyckens, Hubert (eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics, 48–81. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  44. Von Fintel, Kai
    1994 Restrictions on quantifier domains. Amherst: University of Massachusetts at Amherst. (Doctoral dissertation.)
    [Google Scholar]
  45. Von Fintel, Kai & Fox, Danny & Iatridou, Sabine
    2014 Definiteness as maximal informativeness. In Crnič, Luka & Sauerland, Uli (eds.), The art and craft of semantics: A festschrift for Irene Heim, 165–174. Cambridge: The MIT Press. https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/95780#files-area
    [Google Scholar]
  46. Von Stechow, Arnim
    1984 Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics3(1). 1–77. doi:  10.1093/jos/3.1‑2.1
    https://doi.org/10.1093/jos/3.1-2.1 [Google Scholar]
  47. Xu, Guangcan
    2005 “Da” in “ten da popular songs” should not be viewed as a classifier: A reply to Li (2003). Xiuci Xuexi [Rhetoric Learning] 15(1). 64–65.
    [Google Scholar]
  48. Yang, Jilin
    2013Taipingjing Yizhu [Translations and Annotations of Taipingjing]. Beijing: Zhonghua Publishing House.
    [Google Scholar]
  49. Yang, Lu
    1999 Shi shuo “shu+da+ming” geshi [A preliminary analysis of the “number+da+noun” format]. Yuwen Jianshe [Language Planning] 11. 18–21.
    [Google Scholar]
  50. Yu, Baocheng
    1999Baihua ershisi shi-Jinshu [The twenty-four histories in Modern Chinese-Book of Jin]. Beijing: The Chinese Overseas Publishing House.
    [Google Scholar]
  • Article Type: Research Article
Keyword(s): Chinese; da-NumPs; definiteness; scalar semantics; superlatives
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was successful
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error