Gèng: A Coercive Comparative Marker in Mandarin Chinese

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Chen, Zhuang

Mandarin Chinese geng is often translated as “even more” in the literature. Previous studies mainly concentrate on cases where geng combines with a gradable predicate, under which circumstance geng has been long observed to trigger an evaluative inference that both the comparison standard and the comparison target are above the norm on the scale associated with the gradable predicate. To account for this observation, geng has been variously argued to be a degree intensifier, a modifier for gradable adjectives that carries a presupposed comparison, or a comparative morpheme with an evaluative presupposition. These accounts all assume, covertly or overtly, the presence of a gradable predicate for geng to combine with in the syntax. Liu (2010) notes that geng, puzzlingly, can also combine with non-gradable predicates, which poses a challenge to all such accounts. We pick up this puzzle and make two follow-up observations that (a) geng operates on a context-dependent scale when combining with predicates that are non-gradable and non-scalar and (b) geng, in such cases, is norm-sensitive in that it requires both its hosting proposition and the contextually salient, preceding proposition to indicate a degree above the norm on that relevant scale. To account for all the observations, we adopt Liu’s (2010) suggestion that geng has a comparative component and a presupposed evaluative component as its semantics, but more than that, we suggest that geng is uniformly a coercive and thus super flexible comparative marker that forcibly establishes an ordering relation between compared items. To meet its drive of imposing the ordering relation, geng manipulates different elements in its semantic core but is subject to an economy-driven semantic principle, so no over-generation occurs. This study contributes to our understanding of Mandarin comparatives and has some comparatives-related implications regarding e.g. degree abstraction in general.

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