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LINGUIST List 17.2888

Wed Oct 04 2006

Qs: Chinese & Polysynthesis

Editor for this issue: Kevin Burrows <kevinlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Steven Schaufele, Chinese & Polysynthesis

Message 1: Chinese & Polysynthesis
Date: 03-Oct-2006
From: Steven Schaufele <fcosw5mail.scu.edu.tw>
Subject: Chinese & Polysynthesis

Some of my students are wondering whether Chinese would qualify as a
polysynthetic language and if not, why not. What i have told them is that
in 'typical' polysynthetic languages like the Inuit and Iroquoian
languages, the head-noun of the direct object can be joined to the
verb-stem to form a compound verb meaning `buy a house' or `find money' or
whatever. They point out that in Mandarin Chinese, while in a simple
clause one would normally say

Zhe-ge ren mai-le yi-ben shu.
DET-class. `person' `buy'-perf. `one'-class. `book'
'This person bought a book.'

In, e.g., a relative-clause construction it would be quite normal to merge
the verb-stem `mai' and the noun-stem `shu' together to form `mai-shu', a
compound meaning `buy-book':

Zhe-ge mai-shu-de ren
DET-class. `buy'-`book'-MOD `person'
`this person who bought a book' / `this book-buying person'

Now, clearly one of the characteristic features of a `typical'
polysynthetic language is that a complex verb stem that includes both a
`lexical' (translation-equivalent) verb and the head of its own object is
host to the standard verbal inflexional markers, and this is a big part of
what justifies referring to the composite string as a verb. This obviously
doesn't work in Chinese, but since Chinese has virtually nothing in the way
of verbal inflexional markers anyway, my students aren't convinced that
this is an adequate disqualification.

Does anybody out there have an adequate response to this? Can the kind of
reduction characteristic of Chinese relative-clause construction be equated
to verb-incorporation? If not, why not? I haven't any good, responsible
answer to this query, and my students want one.

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