Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

A Semantics-Pragmatics Approach to the Interpretations of Mandarin Bare Nouns

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

A Semantics-Pragmatics Approach to the Interpretations of Mandarin Bare Nouns

Article excerpt

Abstract

Bare nouns are nouns that occur without demonstratives, numerals or articles. Mandarin bare nouns, like English bare plurals, can have a generic or existential interpretation. But unlike English bare plurals, they can also have definite reference. There have been proposals to account for the interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns in terms of syntactic structure (Audrey Li, 1997; Cheng and Sybesma, 1999) and predicate types (Jie, 1997).

The present paper attempts to account for different interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns by relating the kind referring vs. object referring interpretations to the semantic distinction between individual-level and stage- level predicates (Kratzer, 1989) and shows that Mandarin bare nouns have a generic interpretation with individual- level predicates. With stage-level predicates, they have a definite interpretation when they are in topic position and an existential interpretation when they are not in topic position.

However, bare nouns often do not appear as arguments of any predicates in natural discourse. The current paper attempts to reconstruct sentence fragments based on contexts and show that the Givenness Hierarchy (Gundel et al., 1993) restricts possible interpretations of Chinese bare nouns and that Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995) is needed to explain how people choose the intended interpretation from the possible ones.

Key words: Mandarin Bare nouns; semantic distinction; Givenness hierarchy; Relevance theory

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INTRODUCTION

Most human languages allow nominal phrases headed by nouns without demonstratives,numerals or articles, such as English 'dogs' in 'Dogs bark' or 'sugar' in 'Sugar is sweet'. These are referred to as 'bare nouns.' The interpretations of bare nouns in Mandarin Chinese vary by contexts. For example, in (1) and (2), shu 'book' is generic. It refers to the type.

(1) Shu hen gui.

...

''Books are very expensive.''

(2) a. Wo xihuan shu.

...

''I like books.''

b. Shu wo xihuan.

...

''I like books.''

In example (3), shu 'book' refers to a specific book or books that the hearer is expected to identify.

(3) a. Shu dao-le.

''The book has arrived.''

''The books have arrived.''

An overt existential marker is needed for an existential reading here. For example,

(3) b. You shu dao-le.

''Some books have arrived.''

In (4a), shu 'book' yields an existential/indefinite interpretation, while it yields a definite interpretation when it is fronted as in (4b) and (4c).

(4) a. Ta mai le shu.

... indefinite/existential

''He has bought a book/books.''

b. Shu ta mai-le

... definite

''He has bought the book (s).''

A Semantics-Pragmatics Approach to the Interpretations of Mandarin Bare Nouns

c. Ta shu mai-le.

...

''He has bought the book (s)''

This paper attempts to account for different interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns and will show that the kind referring vs. object referring interpretations can be accounted for in terms of the semantic distinction between individual-level and stage-level predicates, while the distinction between definite and indefinite object referring bare nouns will be handled by pragmatics. I will start with previous syntactic accounts and predicate type accounts of Mandarin bare nouns and the deficiency of the previous researches is also pointed out and analyzed and then propose a new account based on predicate types supplemented by a pragmatic account.

Next is a general picture of what has been accomplished in approaches to the interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns.

1. LITERATURE REVIEW

Diesing (1992) propose that Mapping Hypothesis links semantic representation with syntactic structures. That is, material from VP is mapped into the nuclear scope and material from IP is mapped into a restrictive clause. …

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