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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Though see Zanuttini and Portner (2003) for a non-degree approach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The only possible reading for (15) would be one in which the speaker wanted to achieve a markedly sarcastic and humorous effect.
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.
See Fleischhauer (2013) for degree modification of change of state verbs in German.
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.
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.
These examples have been collected by browsing Facebook on May 11, 2013.
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): www.repubblica.it accessed May 11, 2013.
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.
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.
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.
Source for (38): www.gazzetta.it, accessed April 24, 2013.
We explain in more detail below how the proposed analysis applies to the different classes of predicates these modifiers apply to.
Going forward, we will suppress w and g as parameters of the interpretation function when reference to them is not relevant.
Modulo cases like nessunnissimo ‘any-issimo’, discussed in Sect. 2.4.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We thank Galit Sassoon for suggesting this expression.
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.
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.
In this respect, SI is similar to emotive factive predicates like regret, or be excited.
Going forward, we suppress reference to w and g to simplify the notation.
Anand, Pranav, and Andrew Nevins. 2004. Shifty indexicals in changing contexts. In Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 14, ed. Robert Young, 20–37. Ithaca: CLC Publications.
Anderson, Curt. 2013. Gradability in the absence of degree scales. Talk presented at Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 23, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Barker, Chris. 2002. The dynamics of vagueness. Linguistics and Philosophy 25: 1–36. doi:10.1023/A:1014346114955.
Beltrama, Andrea. 2014. Scalar meaning in diachrony: The suffix -issimo from Latin to Italian. In Proceedings of the North East Linguistic Society 44, eds. Jyoti Iyer and Leland Kusmer. Vol. 1, 29–41. Amherst: GLSA.
Bochnak, M. Ryan. 2013a. Cross-linguistic variation in the semantics of comparatives. PhD diss., University of Chicago, Chicago.
Bochnak, M. Ryan. 2013b. The non-universal status of degrees: evidence from Washo. In North East Linguistics Society (NELS) 42, eds. Stefan Keine and Shayne Sloggett, 79–92. Amherst: GLSA.
Bogal-Allbritten, Elizabeth. 2014. Slightly coerced: Processing evidence for adjectival coercion by minimizers. In Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS) 48, ed. Andrea Beltrama et al.
Burnett, Heather. 2014. From quantification and intensification to slack regulation: adjectival ALL. In Chicago Linguistics Society (CLS) 48, ed. Andrea Beltrama et al. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.
Castroviejo, Elena. 2006. A degree-based account of wh-exclamatives in Catalan. In Sinn und Bedeutung 11, ed. Estela Puig-Waldmüller, 134–149. Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
Chernilovskaya, Anna, Cleo Condoravdi, and Sven Lauer. 2012. On the discourse effects of wh-exclamatives. In West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics (WCCFL) 30.
Cobreros, Pablo, Paul Egré, David Ripley, and Robert van Rooij. 2012. Tolerant, classical, strict. Journal of Philosophical Logic 41 (2): 347–385.
Constantinescu, Camelia. 2011. Gradability in the nominal domain. LOT dissertation series 288. Utrecht: LOT.
Cresswell, Max J. 1976. The semantics of degree. In Montague grammar, ed. Barbara Partee, 261–292. New York: Academic Press.
Doetjes, Jenny, Camelia Constantinescu, and Kateřina Součková. 2009. A neo-Kleinian approach to comparatives. In Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 19, eds. Ed Cormany, Satoshi Ito, and David Lutz, 124–141.
Dressler, Wolfgang, and Lavinia Merlini Barbaresi. 1994. Morphopragmatics: diminutives and intensifiers in Italian, German, and other languages. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Fleischhauer, Jens. 2013. Interaction of telicity and degree gradation of change of state verbs. In Studies in the composition and decomposition of event predicates, eds. Boban Arsenijević, Berit Gehrke, and Rafael Marín, 125–152. Dordrecht: Springer.
Gaeta, Livio. 2003. Produttività morfologica verificata su corpora: il suffisso -issimo. In I nuovi media come strumenti per la ricerca linguistica, eds. Franz Rainer and Achim Stein, 43–60. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.
Gumiel-Molina, Silvia, Norberto Moreno-Quibén, and Isabel Pérez-Jiménez. 2015. A syntactic approach to the relative/absolute distinction: the case of adjectives in copular sentences in Spanish. In Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.
Gutzmann, Daniel. 2011. Expressive modifiers & mixed expressives. In Empirical issues in syntax and semantics, eds. Olivier Bonami and Patricia Cabredo Hofherr. Vol. 8, 123–141. http://www.cssp.cnrs.fr/eiss8/index_en.html.
Gutzmann, Daniel. 2012. Use-conditional meaning: studies in multi-dimensional semantics. PhD diss., University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt/Main.
Gutzmann, Daniel. 2013. Pragmaticalization and multidimensional semantics. Paper presented at the workshop on systematic semantic change, University of Texas, Austin.
Gutzmann, Daniel, and Elena Castroviejo. 2011. The dimensions of verum. In Empirical issues in syntax and semantics 8, eds. Olivier Bonami and Patricia Cabredo Hofherr, 143–166. http://www.cssp.cnrs.fr/eiss8/index_en.html.
Höhle, Tilman N. 1992. Über Verum-fokus im Deutschen. In Informationsstruktur und Grammatik, ed. Joachim Jacobs, 112–141. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Jacobsen, William H. 1964. A grammar of the Washo language. PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.
Kamp, Hans. 1975. Two theories of adjectives. In Formal semantics of natural language, ed. Edward Keenan, 123–155. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kamp, Hans, and Barbara Partee. 1995. Prototype theory and compositionality. Cognition 57: 129–191.
Kennedy, Christopher. 2007. Vagueness and grammar: the semantics of relative and absolute gradable adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 30 (1): 1–45. doi:10.1007/s10988-006-9008-0.
Kennedy, Christopher, and Louise McNally. 2005. Scale structure, degree modification and the semantics of gradable predicates. Language 81 (2): 345–381. doi:10.1353/lan.2005.0071.
Kiparsky, Paul. 1973. Elsewhere in phonology. In A festschrift for Morris Halle, eds. Stephen R. Anderson and Paul Kiparsky, 93–106. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston.
Klein, Ewan. 1980. A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 4 (1): 1–46. doi:10.1007/BF00351812.
Kratzer, Angelika. 1981. The notional category of modality. In Words, worlds, and contexts: new approaches to word semantics, eds. Hans-Jürgen Eikmeyer and Hannes Rieser, 163–201. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Krifka, Manfred. 1995. The semantics and pragmatics of polarity items. Linguistic Analysis 25 (3–4): 209–257.
Krifka, Manfred. 2009. Approximate interpretations of number words: a case for strategic communication. In Theory and evidence in semantics, eds. Erhard Hinrichs and John Nerbonne, 109–132. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Lakoff, George. 1973. Hedges: a study in meaning criteria and the logic of fuzzy concepts. Journal of Philosophical Logic 2 (4): 458–508.
Lasersohn, Peter. 1999. Pragmatic halos. Language 75 (3): 522–551.
McCready, Eric. 2010. Varieties of conventional implicature. Semantics and Pragmatics 3: 1–58.
McNabb, Yaron. 2012a. Cross-categorial modification of properties in Hebrew and English. In Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 22, ed. Anca Chereches, 365–382. Ithaca: CLC Publications.
McNabb, Yaron. 2012b. The syntax and semantics of degree modification. PhD diss., University of Chicago, Chicago.
Merlini Barbaresi, Lavinia. 2004. Aggettivi deaggettivali. In La formazione delle parole in italiano, eds. Mario Grossman and Franz Rainer, 444–450. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Morzycki, Marcin. 2009. Degree modification of gradable nouns: size adjectives and adnominal degree morphemes. Natural Language Semantics 17 (2): 175–203.
Morzycki, Marcin. 2011. Metalinguistic comparison in an alternative semantics for imprecision. Natural Language Semantics 19 (1): 39–86.
Morzycki, Marcin. 2012. The several faces of adnominal degree modification. In West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics (WCCFL) 29, eds. Jaehoon Choi, E. Alan Hogue, Jeffrey Punske, Deniz Tat, Jessamyn Schertz, and Alex Trueman, 187–195. Somerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
Osherson, Daniel, and Edward Smith. 1981. On the adequacy of prototype theory as a theory of concepts. Cognition 11: 237–262.
Potts, Christopher. 2005. The logic of conventional implicature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Potts, Christopher. 2007. The expressive dimension. Theoretical Linguistics 33: 165–198.
Potts, Christopher, and Florian Schwarz. 2008. Exclamatives and heightened emotion: extracting pragmatic generalizations from large corpora. Ms. University of Massachusetts.
Rainer, Franz. 1983. L’intensificazione di aggettivi mediante -issimo. In Akten des 2. Österreichisch-italienischen Linguistentreffens, eds. Dardano Maurizio, Wolfgang Dressler, and Gudrum Held, 94–102. Tübingen: Narr.
Rainer, Franz. 2003. Studying restrictions on patterns of word-formation by means of the Internet. Rivista Di Linguistica 15 (1): 131–140.
Rett, Jessica. 2008. A degree account of exclamatives. In Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 18, eds. Tova Friedman and Satoshi Ito. Ithaca: CLC Publications.
Rett, Jessica. 2011. Exclamatives, degrees and speech acts. Linguistics and Philosophy 34: 411–442.
Rosch, Eleanor. 1975. Cognitive representations of semantic categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 104 (3): 192–233.
Rotstein, Carmen, and Yoad Winter. 2004. Total adjectives vs. partial adjectives: scale structure and higher-order modifiers. Natural Language Semantics 12 (3): 259–288. doi:10.1023/B:NALS.0000034517.56898.9a.
Sassoon, Galit Weidman. 2005. Typicality: an improved semantic analysis. In Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics (IATL) 21, ed. Yehuda N. Falk, 1–34. Jerusalem: Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics.
Sassoon, Galit Weidman. 2013. Vagueness, gradability, and typicality: the interpretation of adjectives and nouns. Boston: Brill.
Sawada, Osamu. 2009. Pragmatic aspects of scalar modifiers. PhD diss., University of Chicago.
Sawada, Osamu, and Thomas Grano. 2011. Scale structure, coercion, and the interpretation of measure phrases in Japanese. Natural Language Semantics 19: 191–226. doi:10.1007/s11050-011-9070-1.
Schlenker, Philippe. 2003. A plea for monsters. Linguistics and Philosophy 26: 29–120.
Steriopolo, Olga. 2008. Form and function of expressive morphology: a case study of Russian. PhD diss., The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Syrett, Kristen. 2007. Learning about the structure of scales: Adverbial modification and the acquisition of the semantics of gradable adjectives. PhD diss., Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
Tekavcic, Pavao. 1972. Grammatica storica dell’italiano. Il Mulino.
van Rooij, Robert. 2011. Implicit versus explicit comparatives. In Vagueness and language use, eds. Paul Egré and Nathan Klinedinst, 51–72. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
von Stechow, Arnim. 1984. Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3: 1–77. doi:10.1093/jos/3.1-2.1.
Wierzbicka, Anna. 1991. Cross-cultural pragamtics: the semantics of human interaction. New York: de Gruyter.
Williamson, Timothy. 1999. On the structure of higher-order vagueness. Mind 108 (429): 127–143. doi:10.1093/mind/108.429.127.
Zanuttini, Raffaella, and Paul Portner. 2003. Exclamative clauses: at the syntax-semantics interface. Language 79 (1): 39–81.
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.
To appear in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.
About this article
Cite this article
Beltrama, A., Bochnak, M.R. Intensification without degrees cross-linguistically. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 843–879 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9294-8
- Degree semantics