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The Semantics of Chinese Wh-Phrases  

Qianqian Ren and Haihua Pan

In formal semantics, a wh-phrase is traditionally assigned the semantics of an existential quantifier phrase, an abstraction operator, or a set of alternatives. Such semantics per se, however, is not sufficient to account for the behaviors of Chinese wh-phrases. A wh-phrase in Chinese may be used in a variety of contexts and express a variety of meanings. Apart from interrogative meaning, it may also give rise to existential or universal meaning. More specifically, it can be licensed in typical contexts that license negative polarity items like the c-command domain of negation, the antecedent clause of a conditional, and a yes–no question. It can also be licensed in modal contexts, including epistemic modality and deontic modality. Finally, it can produce a universal reading by being quantified by the adverb dōu ‘all’ or forming the so-called bare conditionals/wh-conditionals, which are composed by two clauses containing matched wh-forms without overt connectives. In order to achieve explanatory adequacy, it is necessary to consider whether and how the different functions of wh-phrases can be unified and whether they can be derived from more general principles or mechanisms. To maintain descriptive adequacy, variations in licensing and interpretation possibilities across wh-items and contexts must also be taken into consideration. Another feature of Chinese wh-phrases is that sometimes they seem to extend their scope beyond domains within which they otherwise take scope (e.g., a Chinese wh-phrase may take existential scope within the antecedent of a conditional, though it may also co-vary with another wh-phrase in the consequent of that conditional). In this respect, they behave like indefinites. As some evidence suggests that some cases where they display this feature may in fact involve the interrogative use, it remains to be seen whether the locus of explanation lies in the wh-phrase itself or in the question meaning. There are other big questions to consider: For instance, how do prosody, syntax and semantics interact with one another in licensing and interpreting a Chinese wh-phrase? Do the theoretical devices and mechanisms postulated have psychological reality? There is also much space for empirical research, which hopefully will help settle debates over the grammaticality of certain structures or the availability of certain readings.