Cross-linguistic variation in degree semantics

WeSSLLI 2020 | Elizabeth Coppock

Course description

This seminar-esque course will cover classic readings in degree semantics, asking why degrees should be included in an ontology for natural language semantics, how to distinguish between phrasal and clausal analyses of comparatives, how to treat antonymy, and whether some languages lack degree abstraction. Students will be expected to be familiar with the basics of compositional semantics (lambdas, types, composition rules).

1. Why degrees?


Klein (1980) argued that gradable predicates like tall should not be analyzed as relations between individuals and degrees, but rather as ordinary (though context-sensitive) predicates of individuals. Kennedy (1999) provided several arguments that a degree-based analysis of gradable predicates is in fact merited. On the first day, we will consider the empirical evidence and the reasoning presented by both of these authors, as well as Bochnak's argument that languages may differ as to which side of the debate they fall on.

2. Polar opposition

On Day 2, we will consider the semantics of negative antonyms like short as opposed to tall. As we will discuss, Kennedy (2001) proposes an interval-based analysis of gradable predicates in order to explain their properties. Heim (2006) argues that negative antonyms can be decomposed into two parts, one (pronounced little) that is scopally mobile; we will review the evidence for this proposal as well.

3. Phrasal vs. clausal comparatives

A sentence like Kim is taller than Sandy can in principle be analyzed either as a comparison between two individuals (a direct analysis) or as a comparison between the degrees of height of two individuals, derived through an underlyingly clausal structure for Sandy. On Day 3, we will examine strategies for distinguishing between these two possibilities discussed by Heim (1985) and Bhatt & Takahashi (2011), as well as cross-linguistic variation along this dimension.

4. Degree parameters

Beck et al. 2010 propose a number of parameters along which languages can vary, including the Degree Semantics Parameter (whether gradable predicates in a language express relations between degrees and individuals, or just predicates of degrees), and the Degree Abstraction Parameter (whether the language allows abstraction over degree traces). On Day 4, we will critically examine the evidence that some languages lack degree abstraction, taking into consideration the possibility proposed by Erlewine (2018) that gradable predicates might expect the degree argument last in the order of composition.

5. Quantity words

Quantity words like many, much, and little exhibit a versatile and distinctive range of functions. On the last day, we will study Solt's (2015) account of their distinctive versatility, which builds on Heim's (2006) theory of little. We will also see that Solt's account of quantity words suffices to explain a robust cross-linguistic generalization regarding the superlatives of quantity words (Coppock et al. to appear).


Beck, Sigrid, Sveta Krasikova, Daniel Fleischer, Remus Gergel, Stefan Hofstetter, Christiane Svaelsberg, John Venderelst & Elisabeth Villalta. 2010. Crosslinguistic variation in comparison constructions. In Jeroen van Craenenbroeck & Johan Rooryck (eds.), Linguistic variation yearbook, 1–66. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Beck, Sigrid, Toshiko Oda & Koji Sugisaki. 2004. Parametric variation in the semantics of comparison: Japanese vs. english. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 13. 289–344.

Bhatt, Rajesh & Shoichi Takahashi. 2011. Reduced and unreduced phrasal comparatives. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29. 581–620.

Bochnak, Ryan. 2015. The degree semantics parameter and cross-linguistic variation. Semantics & Pragmatics 8(6). 1–46.

Coppock, Elizabeth, Elizabeth Bogal-Allbritten & Golsa Nouri-Hosseini. to appear. Universals in superlative semantics. Language to appear.

Erlewine, Michael. 2018. Clausal comparison without degree abstraction in Mandarin Chinese. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 36(2). 445–482.

Heim, Irene. 1985. Notes on comparatives and related matters. Ms., Semantics Archive.

Heim, Irene. 2006. Little. In Masayuki Gibson & Jonathan Howell (eds.), Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT), vol. 14, 35–58. Cornell University. doi:10.3765/salt.v16i0.2941.

Kennedy, Christopher. 1999. Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison. New York: Garland.

Kennedy, Christopher. 2001. Polar opposition and the ontology of ‘degrees’. Linguistics and Philosophy 24. 33–70.

Klein, Ewan. 1980. A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 4. 1–45.

Solt, Stephanie. 2015. Q-adjectives and the semantics of quantity. Journal of Semantics 32. 221–273.