Comparison classes and the relative/absolute distinction: a degree-based compositional account of the ser/estar alternation in Spanish

Abstract

The notion of comparison class has figured prominently in recent analyses of the gradability properties of adjectives. We assume that the comparison class is introduced by the degree morphology of the adjective and present a new proposal where comparison classes are crucial to explain the distribution of adjectives in Spanish copular sentences headed by the verbs ser ‘beSER’ and estar ‘beESTAR’. The copula estar ‘be estar ’ appears whenever a gradable adjective merges with a within-individual comparison class, a modifier expressing a property of stages. The copular verb ser ‘be ser ’ appears when a gradable adjective merges with a between-individuals comparison class, a modifier expressing a property of individuals. The distinction between relative and absolute adjectives can be reduced to the semantic properties of the modifier expressing the comparison class that is merged in the functional structure of the adjective.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The characterization of ser and estar predications in these terms (following Kratzer 1988/1995; Diesing 1992) has been challenged by many authors (see Maienborn 2003, 2005; Arche 2006; Schmitt and Miller 2007; Roby 2009; Jiménez-Fernández 2012; Camacho 2012 and others).

  2. 2.

    In Kubota (2015) comparison class is the crucial notion to account for the ‘manner reading’ vs. the ‘surface-subject oriented reading’ of adverbs like stupidly, cleverly.

  3. 3.

    Though the ser/estar alternation also exists in other Romance languages, we will restrict ourselves to Spanish data in this paper. Moreover, there is dialectal variation in Spanish regarding the combination of adjectives with the copulas ser/estar, which will likewise not be dealt with in this paper. The data described correspond to the dialect of Castilian Spanish spoken in Madrid, Spain.

  4. 4.

    Notice that some of these adjectives (e.g. muerto ‘dead’) have been argued to be non-gradable (Syrett 2007). Since adjectives like these appear in comparative constructions and can be modified by proportional modifiers like medio ‘half’, we consider them gradable, in the line of Kennedy and McNally (2005):

    1. (i)
      figuret
  5. 5.

    In Fults (2006:157) a neo-Davidsonian approach to gradability is proposed in which the measuring function is removed from the adjective meaning and assigned to the degree morpheme.

  6. 6.

    See Anderson and Morzycki (2015) for a different semantics of degrees.

  7. 7.

    Combination with degree modifiers must be handled with care as a diagnostic of scalar structure. As Kennedy and McNally (2005) show, maximizers have an additional use in which they are roughly synonymous with very, (i). The true maximality use is distinguished because it entails that the end of a scale has been reached. Therefore, the examples in (ii) express contradictions, but the examples in (iii) are not contradictory (English examples from Kennedy and McNally 2005).

    1. (i)
      figureab
    1. (ii)
      figureac
    1. (iii)
      figuread

    Similarly, a degree modifier like completamente is compatible with adjectives lacking a maximal degree when it quantifies over entities other than degrees. As Toledo and Sassoon (2011:145, footnote 6) note, degree modifiers can quantify over different sort of entities: “For example, completely different can be interpreted as conveying ‘different in every respect’; hence, in this example, completely operates over a domain of ‘respects’, rather than over degrees”.

    See Sánchez Masiá (2013) for an analysis of scalar sensitivity of degree modifiers in Spanish. In this paper we do not use combination with muy ‘very’ as a diagnostic of an open scale structure since, in Spanish, muy is perfectly compatible with both closed scale and open scale adjectives: El vaso está muy lleno, Juan es muy alto. A different approach to the semantic role of degree modifiers is developed in Toledo and Sassoon (2011), Solt (2012) and others.

  8. 8.

    McNally (2011) provides examples of adjectives interpreted with absolute standards that are not scalar endpoints and also examples of adjectives which can be interpreted with non-endpoint standards despite having closed scales. Accordingly, she redefines the relative/absolute dichotomy without resorting to scalar structure and scalar boundaries: what differentiates relative and absolute standards is not the nature of the degree that marks the standard, but rather the applicability criteria for the property in question. Absolute adjectives contribute properties that are ascribed to the individual via rule. The property contributed by a relative adjective is ascribed to the individual via similarity. Absolute adjectives involve comparing a representation associated with a specific individual (for example one concerning the degree of fullness of a specific class) against a more abstract representation (for example, a degree of fullness for glasses in general). Relative adjectives require comparing a representation of a specific individual or property of that individual against another representation of an equally specific individual or one (or more) of its properties. Thus only relative adjectives are context dependent in the strict sense, but absolute degrees need not be minimal or maximal degrees in absolute scalar terms.

  9. 9.

    Note that the comparative form of absolute adjectives has two readings, as noted by Toledo and Sassoon (2011). In one reading, a direct comparison of the degrees of x and y with respect to the property in question is established. In the other, an indirect comparison of the degrees of x and y relative to the degrees of their respective counterparts is established. This reading arises in examples like (i):

    1. (i)
      figureaj

    In the direct comparison of degrees reading, the amount of water in the glass is smaller than the amount of water in the bottle (the outcome of the measure functions seems to be at stake here, since degrees are directly compared). In the indirect comparison reading, each individual is compared to its counterparts: in this case, the glass is fuller than the bottle, although the amount of liquid it holds is smaller. The oddity of the example comes from the interaction of these two readings.

  10. 10.

    With respect to the possible readings of the comparative in these cases, consider (i):

    1. (i)
      figureal

    In the direct comparison of degrees reading Alicia is taller than Diego (the degree of height assigned to Alicia is higher than the degree of height assigned to Diego). In the second reading, the height of Alicia relative to the counterpart determining the standard value (which is specifically a contextually salient counterpart) is smaller than the height of Diego relative to his contextually salient counterpart. Therefore, when each individual is compared to his/her counterparts, Diego is (“está”) taller than Alicia, although Alicia may be, in a direct comparison of degrees reading, taller than him.

  11. 11.

    These data constitute evidence that contradicts Gumiel-Molina and Pérez-Jiménez (2012). Moreover, the tight relation between scalar structure and the property of being a relative/absolute adjective assumed by these authors forces them to claim that in La niña está alta ‘The girl isESTAR tall’ the adjective is interpreted as a lower-bounded adjective with a non-context-dependent standard value, which is a minimal value on the degree scale. However, the example intuitively does not mean that the girl exceeds an absolute minimum of height in a lower-bound scale.

  12. 12.

    Kennedy and McNally (2005) already noted that dry behaves as a relative (in (i)) or absolute adjective (in (ii)) depending on the kind of entity it is predicated of.

    1. (i)
      figureau
    1. (ii)
      figureav
  13. 13.

    We assume that the DegreePhrase is a functional extension of the projection of the lexical category AP (which encodes the dimension expressed by the adjective). The head of the DegP expresses grammatical meaning related, in traditional terms, to the positive/comparative/superlative degree of the adjective. From the point of view of lexical insertion, the abstract functional morpheme expressing positive degree has no phonological expression in Spanish. We remain neutral with respect to the consideration of scalar structure as consubstantial to the dimension expressed by the adjective, hence part of its lexical content, or as grammatical information severed from the adjective and introduced also syntactically by a functional node.

  14. 14.

    See Solt (2011) and Bale (2011) for overviews of different approaches to comparison classes.

  15. 15.

    The precision made in the text allows us to account for cases like El calor es intenso para ser invierno (lit. The heat is intense to be winter; ‘For winter, the heat is intense.’). The fact that in many cases the individual argument of the gradable adjective x is also P must be derived as an implicature (Fults 2006:176 and ff.).

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Katerine Santo for providing these examples.

  17. 17.

    See, in the same line, Fábregas (2012). For a different line, see Demonte (1999) and Arche (2006).

  18. 18.

    Fábregas (2012) shows that some perfective adjectives like atónito ‘astonished’, perplejo ‘perplexed’ do not have equivalent verbs in contemporary Spanish, although they come from the participles of Latin verbs. This author concludes that the properties that determine the combination of perfective adjectives with estar cannot be attributed to a systematic relation with verbs.

  19. 19.

    According to Roy (2013), as mentioned above, ser co-occurs with +N categories and estar co-occurs with −N categories. Therefore, the facts described in the text are related to the generalization that nouns always co-occur with ser in copular sentences:

    1. (i)
      figurebp

    Nouns can appear with estar if they are coerced into gradable entities. This is also the case with relational adjectives, as seen in the text.

    1. (ii)
      figurebq

    We would like also to suggest that the so-called classificative use of ser is the result of having a noun as the complement of PredP (see Roy 2013 for a parallel proposal). Therefore, in examples like (iii) (cf. (19)), the forms limpio and frío must be considered nouns, which is compatible with the kind of kind of syntactic approach taken in this paper.

    1. (iii)
      figurebr
  20. 20.

    We take this term from Schmitt (2005), who claims that ser is a transparent verbalizer, whereas estar is a non-transparent verbalizer. For other authors, copulas are generated directly in T, to support tense morphemes (cf. Roy 2013).

  21. 21.

    For more on implicit arguments of evaluatives, see Epstein (1984), Bhatt and Izvorsky (1998), Lasersohn (2005) and Pancheva (2006).

  22. 22.

    We thank Manuel Leonetti for suggesting this line of reasoning.

  23. 23.

    Note also that perfective adjectives are possible as depictive secondary predicates with stative verbs: María sabe francés borracha ‘María knows French drunk’. It seems that these adjectives, whose only possible grammatical interpretation is as absolute adjectives, force the reinterpretation of the context, giving rise to a coerced reading of the main predicate: “María only shows ‘knowing French behavior’ while drunk”.

  24. 24.

    We leave as a matter for further research the connection between comparison classes and the notion of topic, a connection already established by Klein (1980:12): “It is, I think, fairly uncontroversial that something like a comparison class does figure in the background assumptions against which sentences containing vague predicates are evaluated. Presumably, it is related to the rather amorphous idea of a ‘topic of conversation’; in many cases, the comparison class is just the set of things that the participants in a conversation happen to be talking about at a given time.”

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Violeta Demonte, Olga Fernández Soriano, Manuel Leonetti, Louise McNally, Jesús Romero-Trillo and the audiences at the SEL 2012 meeting, the XX Incontro di Grammatica Generativa, the XX Colloquium on Generative Grammar, the WAASAP, the International workshopser and estar at the interfaces” and the members of the LyCC group, for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers and the editors of this special issue of NLLT, Elena Castroviejo and Berit Gehrke, whose comments have undoubtedly improved this article. The research underlying this work has been partly supported by a grant to the projects SPYCE II-(FFI2009-07456) and EventSynt-(FFI2009-07114) from the Spanish MICINN, and also by a grant to the project “La adquisición de los verbos copulativos ser y estar en niños de 3–6 años” (Ayudas concedidas a la Escuela de Magisterio en el marco del Convenio de Colaboración entre la Universidad de Alcalá e Ibercaja Obra Social y Cultural, 2011).

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Correspondence to Silvia Gumiel-Molina.

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Gumiel-Molina, S., Moreno-Quibén, N. & Pérez-Jiménez, I. Comparison classes and the relative/absolute distinction: a degree-based compositional account of the ser/estar alternation in Spanish. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 955–1001 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9284-x

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Keywords

  • Absolute
  • Adjective
  • Comparison class
  • Copula
  • Degree
  • Estar
  • Gradability
  • Relative
  • Ser