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Similatives and the argument structure of verbs

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Abstract

I begin with the observation in Haspelmath and Buchholz (1998) that languages tend to use the same morpheme to mark the standard of comparison across equation constructions. In English, it is the morpheme as, in similatives like John danced as Sue (did) and equatives like John is as tall as Sue (is). The first goal of this paper is to provide an analysis of as that accounts for its distribution across these constructions. The second goal of this paper is to provide an account of Haspelmath and Buccholz’s second observation, which is that while languages can form equatives with parameter markers (PMs; the first as in John is as tall as Sue (is)), languages generally do not form similatives with parameter markers. I suggest that equation constructions are a test for lexicalized argumenthood, i.e. that the equation of a non-lexicalized argument prohibits the presence of a PM, and, for English, vice-versa. This leads to the conclusion that, contrary to recent claims (Piñón 2008; Bochnak 2013), verbs, unlike adjectives, generally do not lexicalize degree arguments.

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Notes

  1. I could find only one counterexample to this second generalization, the Hungarian similative in (i).

    1. (i)
      figure d

    HB present (i) without discussing the etymology of the relevant morphemes so I unfortunately cannot offer speculation about why or how it is that Hungarian is exceptional in this respect. Because of (i), and knowing that there are likely other counterexamples, I have characterized this generalization of HB as a strong cross-linguistic tendency, rather than a universal.

  2. Examples from Haspelmath and Buchholz (1998) and Henkelmann (2006) will be annotated with ‘HB’ and ‘H’, respectively, followed by the page number on which they occur in the original text.

  3. This identity restriction seems particularly important when we consider that indirect comparatives like This board is longer than that board is wide cannot undergo elision of the parameter (Bartsch and Venneman 1972; McCawley 1988; Kennedy 1999). See Lechner (2001, 2004) for relevant discussion. Of course, this is only true of clausal comparatives; see e.g. Pancheva (2006) or Bhatt and Takahashi (2007) for syntactic and semantic analyses of phrasal comparatives.

  4. Interestingly, this interpretation is possible when the PM is removed, as in John is tall, as Sue is. I will discuss these constructions (called “generic equatives”) in Sect. 4.2.

  5. While the distributive interpretation is generally available, the collective reading of (37) is unavailable to some speakers.

  6. Tenny (2000) refers to them as ‘messing around’ readings; and Bochnak (2011, 2013) calls them ‘evaluative’ readings. When the modifier half is involved (as opposed to other modifiers that can have a prototypical reading, like completely), the prototypical reading translates precisely as in a half-assed way or did a half-assed job of in colloquial English.

  7. With an intonation break before the SM, generic equatives, like similatives, receive an interpretation like, ‘That chair is light, just like a feather is light.’ As I discussed earlier, these ‘pause similatives’ seem to be related, but I will not provide a complete semantics for them here. Perhaps, with the incorporation of something like a comma intonation, we could analyze them as an equation of propositions or possible worlds, which could account for their truth conditions.

  8. A related wonder comes from Edit Doron (p.c.): If locations are ontological primitives, as times are, why can’t similatives receive a reading in which they equate the location of two events? What sets times and manners apart from other domains?

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to audiences at California Universities Semantics and Pragmatics (CUSP) 4 at USC and the Workshop on Aspect and Argument Structure of Adjectives and Participles (WAASAP) at the University of Greenwich. I am grateful to Natasha Abner for her help in data research, Adrian Brasoveanu, Sam Cumming, Louise McNally, Craig Sailor and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions, and to Flavia Adani, Isabelle Charnavel, Thomas Graf, Hilda Koopman, Hadas Kotek, Sven Lauer, Denis Paperno, Elena Staraki and Floris Van Vugt for their participation in a survey.

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Rett, J. Similatives and the argument structure of verbs. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 31, 1101–1137 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-013-9201-0

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