LINGUIST List 11.2247

Tue Oct 17 2000

Sum: "At least"

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Suzette Haden Elgin, "At least"

Message 1: "At least"

Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2000 09:36:41 -0600
From: Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: "At least"

For Query: Linguist 11.2018

Recently I posted a query about "at least" constructions, asking for input.
[It said: I'm especially interested in constructions such as "You could at
LEAST get to WORK on time!" and their various permutations; I'm especially
interested in "at least" equivalents in languages other than English.
However, I would be grateful for anything at all having to do with "at
least."] I subsequently sent a follow-up question to those who sent me
examples, as follows:

[I need to ask you for one thing more. In American English, many "at least"
sentences come in pairs that are identical except for intonation; one is
hostile and the other nonhostile. For instance:

Q: "What could I do to get started on this project, when I have such
limited data?"
A. "Well, you could at least put everything in alphabetical order." 
A': "Well, you could at LEAST put everything in alphabetical ORder!" (hostile)

What I need to know is whether a similar (or roughly similar) phenomenon
exists in the languages for which you sent me examples; I'd be grateful for
any information you can provide.]

I've copied the responses below, and can only say that I'm now even more
puzzled than I was before I asked, which is not necessarily a bad outcome.
And it's not because the responses weren't helpful and insightful. Some of
the puzzlement undoubtedly results from my failure to define "hostile"
language in my followup query. When I wrote _How to Disagree Without Being
Disagreeable_ (and again for _The Language Imperative_) I had to find a
cover term for "disagreeable" language of a multitude of kinds, and I chose
"hostile language." In the books I explained that; in my query to my
colleagues I failed to do so. My fault, not theirs.

I'm very grateful for all the help, and would be delighted to receive
additional material and comments on the topic at any time, directly to me
at (or by post to OCLS, PO Box 1137, Huntsville, AR
72740-1137). Should any glimmer of clarity emerge from the fog, I'll post a
followup to the list.

Suzette Haden Elgin

(1) From: karchung <>

 Mandarin Chinese:

 (1) The standard, unmarked, most common way of saying 'at
least': zhi4shao3, literally, 'to arrive at + a little, a few';
zhi4 'to arrive at' has a derived meaning of 'as far as something
can go' or 'most'; it is a literary verb used in several frozen
modern expressions.

 (2) qi3ma3, literally, 'to begin + chip' or an 'opening bid':
ma3 is 'yard, chip, token, number, cash'; I suppose qi3ma3 is a
term borrowed from gambling! It means 'the very minimum number or
bid' or just 'at the very minimum, at least'

 (3) hao3dai3, literally, 'good + bad'; i.e. 'regardless of
whether circumstances are favorable or unfavorable, either way,
in any case, any way you do it'; in effect it often means 'at

 (4) ze3me yang4, literally, 'how + particle + pattern'; 'in any
case, no matter what'; in effect, often 'at least'; sometimes
'zai4 ze3me yang4' is used; zai4 means 'again' and is an
intensifier, 'no matter *what* happens!!!'

 These are adverbs that usually come after the subject and before
the verb.

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

 I have a feeling this is largely the same from language to
language; in any case it works much the same in Mandarin as in English.
Chinese is a tonal language, but beyond the need to preserve lexical tone,
Chinese is as intonational as any other language. Sarcasm, dissatisfaction
and impatience are expressed intonationally much as in English, with
loudness, wider pitch spreads (you of course can't change the tonal
*shape* much), variances in tempo and rhythm to add emphasis, pauses,
'cold' tones of voice, facial expressions and other body gestures, and so
forth. In the kind of examples you cite, you could use the exact same
words to communicate a neutral comment or question, a fairly friendly one,
an indulgent cajoling one, or a hostile one, depending on your intonation.

(2) Ivan A Derzhanski <>

I spent some time trying to put my judgements regarding _pone_,
the Bulgarian `at least' word, in order. That turned out to be
a thankless occupation. The four components

(G) _idi_ `go!' (in the sense of `you could get')
(L) _pone_ `at least'
(W) _na rabota_ `to work'
(T) _navreme_ `on time'

can be arranged in 24 ways, arithmetics tells us, and all 24
orders are grammatical, but there is a difference in what can or
can't be in _pone_'s scope. In particular, the reading singled
out in your query (`work is the one place you should try and get
to on time') seems to be possible for 8 of the 24 orders, namely:


Note that none of these start with T `on time'; the ones that do
want _pone_ to have wider scope. The first 4 of the 8 contain
the subsequence LW `at least to work'; the other 4 have W `to work'
in initial (focus) position, followed by either L `at least' or
G `(you could) go'.

Of the others, GTWL and GWLT (with WL `to work at least' inside)
might also be able to have the same interpretation. I don't think
the rest can, though.

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

Implying, I take it, `if you're in fact unable to do anything more
than that' and `if you can't be bothered to do anything more than
that', respectively.

If that's it, then Bulgarian _pone_ can also be used in both ways.
Its position within the sentence doesn't seem to matter.

(3) From: "Bruno Estigarribia" <>

Norwegian -- One of my norwegian friends sent me these :

"Du kunne i det minste komt deg p� jobb tidsnok!"
"Du kunne i det minste hatt deg p� jobb i tide!"
"Du kan i det minste komme p� jobb til rett tid!"

Seems that "i det minste" is what one would say in Norwegian, or at least
in Bokm�l, that is, the variety spoken in Oslo and the East Coast.

Spanish: �Al menos, podr�as llegar al trabajo a tiempo!
 French: Tu pourrais au moins arriver au boulot � l'heure !


1. /kimi -wa SUKUNAKUTOMO zikandoori -ni
 "you"-THEME "At least" "on time" - TIME

shigoto -ni tsuk -eru darou/

/kimi- wa shigoto -ni zikandoori -ni tsuk -e
You -TH "work"- LOC "on time " - TEMP "arrive"-POSSIBLE
-WA suru darou/

Literal translation: "Concerning you, concerning (solely) the fact that
it's possible to get to work on time, (I think) it will be done"

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

[For the Japanese examples] In both cases, stressing of SUKUNAKUTOMO (1) or
of -WA (2), conveys an ironical or aggressive meaning, for instance: so,
why are you late? Without stress, the two sentences are simply declarative.

As for Argentinian Spanish, my feeling is that the mere formulation of the
sentence in such terms (Al menos/Como m�nimo/Por lo menos, podr�as llegar a
tiempo/temprano al trabajo) carries a certain disapproval, albeit not
necessarily ironic, mostly conveyed by the first idiom of the sentence,
which suggests strongly that what follows is a minimum required to behave.
A neutral formulation is, to the best of my knowledge or, rather,
intuition, incompatible with "at least" in Spanish, and I must confess I
fail to feel a supposed neutrality in the English (and French) sentence as
well, whether the words are stressed or not. I think the implications of
"at least" are too strong to allow a declarative interpretation.

(4) From: "Hans-Werner Hatting" <>

I can�t offer You any references, but at least :-) I can offer You a native
speaker�s information about German.
"at least" translates into German as "wenigstens, mindestens, zumindest".
They can also be used in the construction mentioned by You ("Du k-nntest
(or: "Sie k-nnten" - polite form) wenigstens / mindestens / zumindest
p�nktlich zur Arbeit kommen!")
"Wenigstens" is neutral, "mindestens / zumindest" are marked as
The Russian equivalent (I�m no native speaker, but quite fluent) would be
"po krayney m�re", which functions in the same way ("ikh bylo po krayney
mere chelovek dvadtsat�" - "they were at least twenty persons"; "Ty (Vy)
mog(li) by po krayney mere prikhodit� na rabotu vovremya!" - your example).
One could translate the Russian expression as "by utter/utmost measure".

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

a non-hostile use of the German forms "wenigstens, zumindest, mindestens" is
certainly possible, e.g. (Child): "I want to help You, but I also have
homework to do." (Parent): "Du k-nntest wenigstens (zumindest/mindestens)
dein Zimmer aufr"umen./!!" - "You could at least clean up your room./!!"
In the situation you give, my impression is that in German the "at least"
construction would be considered as vituperative, even if said with a
neutral tone - to make it non-hostile, one would better use expressions like
"erstmal / f�r den Anfang" = "as a first step / for a start".
For the Russian construction "po krajnej mere" I�m not sure.

(5) From Diana Lewis <>

Re your query on at least, see Paul Kay's paper 'At least' in A Lehrer &
EF Kittay (eds) (1992) Frames, fields and contrasts. New essays in
semantic and lexical organization (Erlbaum), reprinted in Kay's 1997 book
Words and the grammar of context (CSLI).
I've worked on at least in English, including the evaluative use you
mention, as part of my thesis and can send you the relevant section if
you're interested.
Romance languages seem to show a similar development to English, cf Fr
du moins/au moins etc., Sp. al menos/por lo menos. I seem to remember
argumentation theory (Anscombre & Ducrot etc.) deals somewhere with au

(6) From: Rick Mc Callister <rmccallisunmuw1.MUW.Edu>


<por lo menos> Puedes llegar a tiempo por lo menos "You can at least arrive
on time."

also, occasionally, <apenas> "lit. scarcely, barely", sometimes used in a
semi-sarcastic sense �Apenas puedes llegar a tiempo? maybe more like "Can't
you even arrive on time?"

(7) From: �ystein Nilsen <>

Manfred Krifka has a paper on 'at least', mostly about nominal
constructions like 'at least two...'. His paper is downloadable
at . It is called "at
least some determiners aren't determiners." To the extent that
'at least' has the same distribution as other focus particles,
you may find Richard Kayne's 1998 paper "overt vs/ covert
movement" interesting. It is in the journal 'syntax'. Sjef
Barbiers has a discussion on the syntax of focus particles in his
1995 dissertation "the Syntax of Interpretation" (Leiden
University, Holland). D. Buring and K. Hartmann have a paper
with the title "V3 or not V3? An Investigation of German Focus
Particles", downloadable at .

(8) From: Marc Picard <>

I don't have any references for you but I can tell you that French has what
seems to be a perfectly equivalent structure in AU MOINS so that your 
sentence would translate as "Tu pourrais AU MOINS arriver au travail 
� l'heure". You could also have AU MOINS at the beginning or at the end of 
the sentence just like in English.

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

In French, I'd say that the answers would be:

A: Eh bien, tu pourrais au moins tout mettre en ordre alphab�tique.

A': Eh bien, tu pourrais [?]AU MOINS tout mettre en ordre alphab�tique.

with [?] indicating a glottal stop which serves to demarcate the last vowel of
pourrais and the vowel of au. Also, although you designate the second type of
answer as being hostile, I think it could just as well indicate exasperation.

(9) From: "kavita rastogi" <>

In Hindi , national language of India , The equivalent for ' at least'
would be " kam se kam' meaning minimally .The sentence you had taken would
be translated as" tum kam se kam samay se kaam kar sakate ho".

=== [And in reply to the follow-up question]:

This feature is very clear in Hindi. The Example you had taken would be
translated as " tum kam se kam vaRna kramaanusaar lagaa sakate ho".
It can be said as a suggestion as well as it can be used in sarcastic tone
as a discounting message

(10) From: Jay Rifkin <jirifkinMIT.EDU>

I'm currently working on a paper about "if only" and "only"; Some of it
should be relevant to "at least," which I mention in passing. Some examples:

If he would only arrive on time!
If he would at least arrive on time!

I only found four Easter eggs.
At least I found four Easter eggs.

 You might also take a look at Ekkehand Konig's book, _The Meaning of Focus
Particles_. I don't know whether he discusses "at least" specifically, but
he certainly discusses a number of related items.
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