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Quasi-definites in Swedish: Elative superlatives and emphatic assertion

Journal article
Authors Elizabeth Coppock
Elisabet Engdahl
Published in Natural language and linguistic theory
Volume 34
Issue 4
Pages 1181–1243
ISSN 0167-806X
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Swedish
Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Pages 1181–1243
Language en
Links dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9327-...
Keywords definiteness, superlatives, degree semantics, elatives, polarity sensitivity, strength of assertion, Scandinavian, Swedish
Subject categories Swedish language, Linguistics

Abstract

This paper analyzes nominal phrases in Swedish with a definite article but no definite suffix on the head noun, which we call quasi-definites (e.g. det största intresse ‘the greatest interest’). These diverge from the usual ‘double definiteness’ pattern where the article and the suffix co-occur (e.g. det största intresse-t ‘the greatest interest-def’). We give several diagnostics showing that this pattern arises only with superlatives on an elative (‘to a very high degree’) interpretation, and that quasi-definites behave semantically as indefinites, although they have limited scope options and are resistant to polarity reversals. Rather than treating the article and the suffix as marking different aspects of definiteness, we propose that both are markers of uniqueness and that the definite article signals definiteness that is confined to the adjectival phrase and combines with a predicate of degrees rather than individuals in this construction. The reason that quasi-definites do not behave precisely as ordinary indefinites has to do with their pragmatics: Like emphatic negative polarity items, elative superlatives require that the assertion be stronger (≈ more surprising) than alternatives formed by replacing the highest degree with lower degrees, and have a preference for entailment scales.

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