Discourse Prominence Induces Semantic Change: Evidence from Chinese

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Chen, Jun

I propose four stages in a semantic bleaching process of the Chinese numeral nominal phrase, da-NumP. This division of stages is based on the chronological order in which the first attested examples of each stage arise. The first stage is a lexical use, in which the morpheme da is a lexical modifier denoting the property of bigness. In the second stage, da loses its lexical status and functions as a ranking operator. More specifically, in the form [Num da N], N denotes the quantificational domain/the restrictor of a quantifier. Da combines with N and the numeral Num to rank all the members within the domain of N relative to an implicit scale, and points to members that are ranked on the upper range/bound of that scale. Combined together, [Num da N] denotes the top ||Num|| number of entities along that scale. This ranking reading is retained in a later development stage. Meanwhile, at this stage, the noun N expresses a further update property exclusively about the top-ranked entities, and ousts the domain of quantification from surface realization. In the final stage, the ranking reading is lost, replaced by a definite reading. I conclude my paper with a discourse-based theory of the bleaching process, in which I argue that the transition between stage 3 and stage 4 can be seen as triggered by the shift in relative discourse prominence within the elements of the da-NumP.

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