This paper provides an overview of polarity phenomena in human languages. There are three prominent paradigms of polarity items: negative polarity items (NPIs), positive polarity items (PPIs), and free choice items (FCIs). What they all have in common is that they have limited distribution: they cannot occur just anywhere, but only inside the scope of licenser, which is negation and more broadly a nonveridical licenser, PPIs, conversely, must appear outside the scope of negation. The need to be in the scope of a licenser creates a semantic and syntactic dependency, as the polarity item must be c-commanded by the licenser at some syntactic level. Polarity, therefore, is a true interface phenomenon and raises the question of well-formedness that depends on both semantics and syntax. Nonveridical polarity contexts can be negative, but also non-monotonic such as modal contexts, questions, other non-assertive contexts (imperatives, subjunctives), generic and habitual sentences, and disjunction. Some NPIs and FCIs appear freely in these contexts in many languages, and some NPIs prefer negative contexts. Within negative licensers, we make a distinction between classically and minimally negative contexts. There are no NPIs that appear only in minimally negative contexts. The distributions of NPIs and FCIs crosslinguistically can be understood in terms of general patterns, and there are individual differences due largely to the lexical semantic content of the polarity item paradigms. Three general patterns can be identified as possible lexical sources of polarity. The first is the presence of a dependent variable in the polarity item—a property characterizing NPIs and FCIs in many languages, including Greek, Mandarin, and Korean. Secondly, the polarity item may be scalar: English any and FCIs can be scalar, but Greek, Korean, and Mandarin NPIs are not. Finally, it has been proposed that NPIs can be exhaustive, but exhaustivity is hard to precisely identify in a non-stipulative way, and does not characterize all NPIs. NPIs that are not exhaustive tend to be referentially vague, which means that the speaker uses them only if she is unable to identify a specific referent for them.
Olaf Koeneman and Hedde Zeijlstra
The relation between the morphological form of a pronoun and its semantic function is not always transparent, and syncretism abounds in natural languages. In a language like English, for instance, three types of indefinite pronouns can be identified, often grouped in series: the some-series, the any-series, and the no-series. However, this does not mean that there are also three semantic functions for indefinite pronouns. Haspelmath (1997), in fact distinguishes nine functions. Closer inspection shows that these nine functions must be reduced to four main functions of indefinites, each with a number of subfunctions: (i) Negative Polarity Items; (ii) Free-Choice Items; (iii) negative indefinites; and (iv) positive or existential indefinites. These functions and subfunctions can be morphologically realized differently across languages, but don’t have to. In English, functions (i) and (ii), unlike (iii) and (iv), may morphologically group together, both expressed by the any-series. Where morphological correspondences between the kinds of functions that indefinites may express call for a classification, such classifications turn out to be semantically well motivated too. Similar observations can be made for definite pronouns, where it turns out that various functions, such as the first person inclusive/exclusive distinction or dual number, are sometimes, but not always morphologically distinguished, showing that these may be subfunctions of higher, more general functions. The question as to how to demarcate the landscape of indefinite and definite pronouns thus does not depend on semantic differences alone: Morphological differences are at least as much telling. The interplay between morphological and semantic properties can provide serious answers to how to define indefinites and the various forms and functions that these may take on.