Intensification without degrees cross-linguistically


In this paper, we examine the semantics of two cross-categorial modifiers that receive an interpretation of intensification: -issimo in Italian, and šému in Washo. Given that both modifiers can combine with a wide range of categories, including those not typically considered grammatically gradable, we argue against an analysis of these modifiers along the lines of e.g., Kennedy and McNally (Language 81(2):345–381, 2005) for very, as uniformly boosting a degree standard. Rather, we argue that the type of modification found with -issimo and šému is one that manipulates a contextual parameter present in the modified expressions, and more specifically universally quantifies over possible contexts of evaluation. Such an analysis allows us to account for the wide distribution of these modifiers, and their co-occurrence with categories that do not encode degree variables. We therefore argue for a typological split in the landscape of intensifiers, both across and within languages, between those that track degree variables, and those that do not.

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  1. 1.

    Though see Zanuttini and Portner (2003) for a non-degree approach.

  2. 2.

    The suffix -issimo agrees in number and gender with the subject, just like most adjectives in Italian. The version -issimo is masculine singular, -issima is feminine singular, -issimi is masculine plural and -issime feminine plural. For sake of simplicity, we consistently gloss these as -issimo in the examples. The other morphological glosses used in this paper are as follows: aor = aorist; attr = attributive; cop = copula; du = dual; inch = inchoative; ipfv = imperfective; poss = possessive; prt = particle; q = question; refl = reflexive; sr = switch reference. Washo orthography conforms largely to the standard IPA values with the following exceptions: M = [m̥];  = [ʃ]; y = [j]. The acute accent represents primary stress.

  3. 3.

    See Rett (2008, 2011) for arguments that even in cases of exclamatives without overt gradable expressions (e.g. What peppers he ate!), a covert degree operator is present that introduces a degree-based interpretation.

  4. 4.

    The distribution of very is slightly more complicated than the way we have described it here. For instance, McNabb (2012b) shows that very is productive with minimum-standard predicates as well as relative-standard ones. Meanwhile, Syrett (2007) classifies very as being unrestricted in its modification properties, although the interpretation of very is relative across uses. Even though very is less restricted than Kennedy and McNally (2005) claim, we show in this section that the distributions of both -issimo and šému are even wider. See Gumiel-Molina et al. (2015) for a recent approach to the relative-absolute distinction that is divorced from the scale structure of gradable predicates.

  5. 5.

    Molto, instead, is fine with minimum standard predicates. While this does not immediately follow from Kennedy and McNally’s (2005) theory of degree modifiers, we observe that for many degree modifiers the patterns of combination with minimum-standard adjectives are somewhat controversial. See the previous footnote on very, for instance.

  6. 6.

    This test cannot be performed in Washo, as it lacks a dedicated comparative construction (Bochnak 2013a,b). We discuss this point later on in this section. We also point out here that gradable expressions in Washo are lexicalized as verbs, as there is no syntactic category of adjectives in this language. Verbal predicates can be nominalized with the prefix de-, in which case the gradable predicate appears with a copula.

  7. 7.

    Since proibito ‘forbidden’ is modal, it could be considered gradable in the sense that it is associated with an ordering source (Kratzer 1981), which could be seen as lexically encoded ordering. However, as shown in (14), it does not appear in comparatives, or with molto. From this point of view, the behavior of proibito diverges in a crucial way from a gradable predicate like alto ‘tall’, and we conclude that it is in fact non-gradable.

  8. 8.

    The only possible reading for (15) would be one in which the speaker wanted to achieve a markedly sarcastic and humorous effect.

  9. 9.

    The context described for this use of šému is one where there is uncertainty as to whether the predicate holds or not. This may be significant, as discussed later on in Sect. 2.5.

  10. 10.

    See Fleischhauer (2013) for degree modification of change of state verbs in German.

  11. 11.

    In addition, we also observe some variability in judgments from native speakers, as we have witnessed when we presented this data to various audiences. Some speakers prefer other strategies for nominal intensification, e.g. the prefix super or the suffix -one. We thank Giorgio Magri for pointing this out.

  12. 12.

    Such borderline cases could exist in a context in which the person does not really know enough about fish to distinguish a dorado from another similar species. But this is clearly not the case in the context here.

  13. 13.

    These examples have been collected by browsing Facebook on May 11, 2013.

  14. 14.

    The example in (32) comes from a newspaper article that confirms the death of Osama Bin Laden, where there had previously been uncertainty as to whether he was dead or still alive. The degree modifier molto is not licensed even in this case. Source for (32): accessed May 11, 2013.

  15. 15.

    Going forward, we use mod to represent the underlying semantic core shared by -issimo and šému, abstracting away from their differences at this point. This section and Sect. 4 are dedicated to characterizing the common semantic components of both modifiers, while in Sect. 5 we focus on accounting for the differences observed between them.

  16. 16.

    In (34) we assume a semantic type for gradable predicates that includes a degree argument, 〈d,〈e,t〉〉, following Cresswell (1976), von Stechow (1984), Kennedy and McNally (2005), among others. There is another line of research on gradable predicates that denies that they are endowed with degree arguments, and treat them as a subset of the 〈e,t〉 predicates (e.g. Kamp 1975; Klein 1980; van Rooij 2011). The criticisms for what we call degree-based approaches in this section apply to both styles of analysis, since both are intended to be analyses of gradable predicates.

  17. 17.

    We borrow Morzycki’s (2012) analysis for real simply for the purposes of providing a concrete illustration of what an analysis based on prototypes might look like. There are of course other technical means through which such an analysis could be achieved.

  18. 18.

    Source for (38):, accessed April 24, 2013.

  19. 19.

    We explain in more detail below how the proposed analysis applies to the different classes of predicates these modifiers apply to.

  20. 20.

    Going forward, we will suppress w and g as parameters of the interpretation function when reference to them is not relevant.

  21. 21.

    Modulo cases like nessunnissimo ‘any-issimo’, discussed in Sect. 2.4.

  22. 22.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that an earlier implementation of our analysis that was more similar to Williamson’s in this respect also ran into this problem.

  23. 23.

    McNabb’s notion of ‘relevant’ contexts is left somewhat vague. We try to avoid this issue by specifying in more detail the characteristics of a relation R between contexts, but ultimately conclude that there must be some sort of contextual domain restriction present to rule out unwanted interpretations.

  24. 24.

    Some sort of domain restriction on possible contexts is necessary to prevent unwanted effects, e.g., admitting comparison classes that the individual x could not conceivably be a part of. We set aside how exactly this should be done for further research.

  25. 25.

    In (46), we intend for tall to stand in for alto in Italian or ʔilkaykayiʔ in Washo, where c stands in for the relevant contextual value that varies across contexts.

  26. 26.

    An alternative formalization of pragmatic slack is offered by Morzycki (2011), who translates halos in terms of degrees of precision. In his analysis, the interpretation of an expression α is relativized to a contextually determined degree of precision d ranging between 0 (lowest degree) to 1 (highest degree, no slack tolerated). The value of d must be contextually supplied, depending on how much pragmatic slack is tolerated in a particular context. Under our analysis, this value would be determined by h.

  27. 27.

    We observe similarities between this case and the use of “do support” in English as a verum focus operator, investigated by Höhle (1992) and Gutzmann and Castroviejo (2011). We leave a more thorough comparison to verum focus and -issimo and šému to future work.

  28. 28.

    This parallel is only relative to the expressive component. In terms of their propositional contribution, in fact, exclamatives and -issimo exhibit a significantly different behavior (see Sect. 1).

  29. 29.

    We thank Galit Sassoon for suggesting this expression.

  30. 30.

    Note that this behavior with respect to negation is not isolated, as it is commonly found among evaluative suffixes, which are also normally analyzed as mixed modifiers. In Italian, the suffix -ino conveys that the referent is small at a descriptive level, and that the speaker feels some positive affection towards the referent at the expressive level. Whenever the host+suffix are under negation, both the descriptive and the expressive part are suppressed. Steriopolo (2008) provides similar examples from Russian.

    1. (1)
  31. 31.

    Note that this function is context-sensitive in the exact same way, i.e., relativized to the parameter c, as other context-sensitive predicates that -issimo and šému can apply to.

  32. 32.

    In this respect, SI is similar to emotive factive predicates like regret, or be excited.

  33. 33.

    Going forward, we suppress reference to w and g to simplify the notation.


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We would like to thank audiences at the workshop “Modification (with & without modifiers)—MDF2011” in Madrid, Semantics of Underrepresented Languages of the Americas 6 in Manchester, and Illinois Language and Linguistics Society 4 for feedback on various versions of this work. We are particularly grateful for helpful discussion and comments from Heather Burnett, Itamar Francez, Daniel Gutzmann, Vera Hohaus, Stefan Hofstetter, Chris Kennedy, Peter Klecha, Yaron McNabb, Maria Napoli, Malvina Nissim and Galit Sassoon. Comments from three anonymous reviewers also greatly improved this paper, especially in terms of organization and argumentation. Ryan Bochnak would like to thank Washo elders Ramona Dick and Steven James for their patience and help with the Washo language. Bochnak’s fieldwork was supported by grants from the Jacobs Fund of the Whatcom Museum, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Science Foundation under grant #1155196. We also thank Elena Castroviejo and Berit Gehrke for organizing, editing, and including us in this special issue. All errors and oversights are our own responsibility.

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Beltrama, A., Bochnak, M.R. Intensification without degrees cross-linguistically. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 843–879 (2015).

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  • Intensification
  • Modification
  • Gradability
  • Degree semantics
  • Expressives
  • Italian
  • Washo