Ryan Bochnak (UBC) will present a research seminar entitled, “Degreefulness is the result of functional inventory, not a parameter”
(joint work with Margit Bowler, Emily Hanink and Andrew Koontz-Garboden, University of Manchester)
Beck et al (2010) propose the Degree Semantics Parameter (DSP), by which languages vary in the lexical semantics of their inventory of gradable predicates (GPs): +DSP languages (e.g., English) have GPs with a degree argument, while GPs in -DSP languages (e.g., Motu) lack one. This proposal has led to many investigations of gradability and comparison in a range of less-studied languages, showing that while some fit well into this binary division (e.g., Washo, Bochnak 2015), others do not. We argue against the DSP as a binary macro-parameter on open class GPs. Instead, we argue for the stronger universal that GPs never introduce degrees in any language. Rather, degrees are introduced by functional elements like comparative morphemes, measure phrases, gradable modifiers, etc. If a language lacks all such elements (e.g., Washo per Bochnak 2015), then it is completely degreeless. Languages otherwise vary in the number of degree morphemes they grammaticalize, and which ones.
In doing away with the macro-parametric DSP in this way, our analysis gives rise to several welcome consequences. First, we account for the range of languages that grammaticalize one or few degree morphemes: Languages can develop some degree morphemes without grammaticalizing an entire degree system (e.g., Kunbarlang, Motu, Nez Perce). Second, we account for languages where only a subset of GPs interact with degree morphology: For example in Tswefap (Bantu; Clem 2019) and Tlingit (Na-Dene; Cable 2019), only gradable verbs interact with degree morphology, while adjectives do not. This is unexpected under a language-wide DSP parameter setting but can be accounted for in our analysis, as the functional degree morphology controlling degree behavior can simply be picky about the syntactic categories it selects for. Third, our proposal also makes sensible predictions about language change, e.g., of the kind discussed for Samoan by Hohaus (2018): Changing from being degreeless to degreeful no longer requires a wholesale semantic reanalysis of a large swath of open class vocabulary. Rather, it comes as a consequence of reasonably well-understood processes of grammaticalization, such as a plausible bleaching and semantic change of a directional particle to an explicit comparative marker, as has happened in Samoan. Fourth, the observation due to Hohaus et al (2014) that children start out -DSP and only move to +DSP as they acquire their first language is captured through the gradual acquisition of functional vocabulary, rather than a reanalysis of GPs. Last, our analysis is in principle compatible with those that aim to remove degrees from the semantic ontology (e.g., Doetjes et al. 2009, van Rooij 2011). Insofar as the semantics of comparison, measure phrases, etc., can be implemented without degrees, then functional morphemes also need not introduce them (though some constructions, e.g., differential comparatives; (von Stechow 1984) would likely still need a degree semantics in languages having them).
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