The Bigger or the Biggest?

Helena Aparicio (MIT)
Event time: 
Monday, November 16, 2020 - 4:00pm
Event description: 

Languages differ on where they choose to make morphological distinctions. For instance English counts with two related but separate morphemes, the comparative and the superlative, to express meanings about the degree to which an individual has an adjectival property compared to others (1). On the other hand, Romance languages such as Spanish or French encode the union of the meanings expressed by (1a-b) through a unique periphrastic form (more + Adj.), as seen in (2).

(1)  a. The bigger hat.

      b. The biggest hat.

(2)  a. El sombrero más grande.

      b. Le plus grand chapeau.      

In this talk I will ask the question of whether the meaning of definite comparatives like (1a) is equivalent to the meaning of their superlative counterparts (1b), or whether these two forms have developed their own specialized meaning features. On the basis of corpus and experimental evidence, I will argue that the meanings of these two morphemes are indeed not redundant. In particular, I will propose that the acceptability of definite comparatives is contingent on the cardinality of the degrees represented in the comparison class used for their interpretation, and show that definite superlatives do not display such constraint. Time permitting, I will discuss results from computational simulations that investigate the role of pragmatic reasoning about alternative utterances in the production and comprehension patterns observed in our corpus and experimental results.

Joint ongoing work with Curtis Chen (MIT), Roger Levy (MIT) and Elizabeth Coppock (BU).

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