A Semantics-Pragmatics Approach to the Interpretations of Mandarin Bare Nouns

Liwei CHEN, Duxin CAO


Bare nouns are nouns that occur without demonstratives, numerals or articles. Mandarin bare nouns, like English bare plurals, can have a generic or existential interpretation. But unlike English bare plurals, they can also have definite reference. There have been proposals to account for the interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns in terms of syntactic structure (Audrey Li, 1997; Cheng and Sybesma, 1999) and predicate types (Jie, 1997).
The present paper attempts to account for different interpretations of Mandarin bare nouns by relating the kind referring vs. object referring interpretations to the semantic distinction between individual-level and stage-level predicates (Kratzer, 1989) and shows that Mandarin bare nouns have a generic interpretation with individual-level predicates. With stage-level predicates, they have a definite interpretation when they are in topic position and an existential interpretation when they are not in topic position.
However, bare nouns often do not appear as arguments of any predicates in natural discourse. The current paper attempts to reconstruct sentence fragments based on contexts and show that the Givenness Hierarchy (Gundel et al., 1993) restricts possible interpretations of Chinese bare nouns and that Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995) is needed to explain how people choose the intended interpretation from the possible ones.


Mandarin Bare nouns; Semantic distinction; Givenness hierarchy; Relevance theory

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3968%2Fj.sll.1923156320130701.2563


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