nyzoe (nyzoe) wrote in linguaphiles,
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Incredible simpletons and extraordinary jazz lovers - Part Two

Hello again!

Here is the promised follow-up post for non-English speakers. It also features an explanation of my purposes, so if you filled in the questionnaire I linked to in my previous post and like to know what it was all about, just look under the cut!

If your first language is not English, Dutch, German or Hungarian, and you have half an hour to spare for science, I'd be much obliged if you could have a look at this follow-up questionnaire. If you'd rather have it as a Microsoft Word (or OpenOffice) document, which might be easier than reading and replying to a LJ post, just leave your e-mail address in the comments or send me a message.

 

Gradeable nouns – questionnaire

Background

Every languages contains adjectives that can be modified to indicate the degree to which they hold. For example, we can modify tall in John is tall to indicate how big John is: rather tall, very tall, extremely tall, ridiculously tall, and so on. These gradeable adjectives have been widely studied by syntacticians and semanticists.

But adjectives are not the only words that can be graded. There are also gradeable nouns, although this is a much less studied phenomenon. Examples are nouns like nerd, idiot, fan, enthusiast, simpleton, and so on. Obviously, one can be an idiot or knitting enthusiast to a greater or lesser degree, and just as with the adjectives this degree can be indicated by adding a modifier. A well-known example of such a modifier is big (and similar adjectives): we interpret John is a big/huge/enormous knitting enthusiast as 'John is very enthusiastic about knitting', not as 'John is a knitting enthusiast and physically big'.

However, the class of possible noun modifiers appears to be much smaller than the class of possible adjective modifiers. Compare the following sentences:

(a) John is abnormally nerdy
(b) John is an abnormal nerd

While abnormally in (a) has a degree reading – 'John is extremely nerdy' – abnormal in (b) hasn't; (b) can only mean (at least to the overwhelming majority of English speakers I consulted) that John is a nerd and also abnormal.

One of the purposes of my thesis is to find out which adjectives can function as degree modifiers. Basically, there are two options: (1) something in the semantics of certain adjectives makes them appropriate as degree modifiers, and (2) degree-modifying adjectives simply have this function as part of their lexicalised meaning, and the difference between adjectives that can and can't modify a gradeable noun is basically a historical coincidence.
In the second case, we'd expect the class of possible modifiers to be very different across languages, whereas in the first case we'd expect to see similar properties for words with a similar semantics crosslinguistically. And this, obviously, is where you – speaker of an exotic language (i.e. not English) – come in!

Questionnaire

1. Which language do you speak?

The general format to test for degree readings is as follows. A is your favourite gradeable noun (a direct translation of one of the English ones mentioned above, or a different one). B is an adjective. Using your language's equivalent of John is a B A, try to decide which interpretation fits this sentence best:

(a) the degree reading: 'John is very A-like'
(b) the non-degree reading, approximated by 'John is an A, and he is also B'

2. Can your gradeable noun be modified by your language's equivalent of big? Can you give an example?

3. What other adjectives result in a degree reading? Which do not? Can you provide:
- a list of adjectives with English translation, as literal as possible
- one or two complete examples (the adjective in a John is a B A sentence, with glosses (a very literal word-for-word translation into English)

I am especially interested in (1) adjectives of disbelief (English examples: unbelievable, incredible, impossible, incomprehensible, unimaginable...), (2) adjectives of abnormality (abnormal, insane, bizarre, extraordinary, ridiculous...), (3) adjectives of surprise (amazing, surprising, unexpected...), but if you have other nice examples of possible modifiers I would be glad to hear them.
Note that the disbelief/abormality/suprise distinction is not very clear-cut – it's more of a guideline than anything else, so don't be bothered by it too much).

4. Can I contact you if I need more details or additional data? If so, how?

I know it's a lot, but I'd be extremely happy if you could help me. Even if you can provide only a few adjectives, it's better than nothing.

 

Thanks a lot!

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