LINGUIST List 4.555

Thu 15 Jul 1993

Sum: Adjectives

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  1. Roberto Zamparelli, Sum: Adjectives

Message 1: Sum: Adjectives

Date: Thu, 8 Jul 93 18:46:19 EDTSum: Adjectives
From: Roberto Zamparelli <>
Subject: Sum: Adjectives

This is a summary for my query about meaning-changing adjectives,
posted several months ago.
Sorry for the long delay---I had some logistic problems.

My starting point was that in Italian and other Romance languages
adjectives can generally appear both before and after the noun, but
several adjectives change meaning in these two positions.

(1a) Un CARO amico (1b) Un ristorante CARO
 A dear friend A restaurant expensive
 "A dear friend" "An expensive restaurant"

My query was:
(a) Are there are other (possibly non-Romance) languages in which
 adjectives have more than one position within NP, AND different
 positions correlate with different meanings?
(b) If there are, (1) what is the unmarked position for the adjective
 within NP? (2) Is the meaning correlated with the unmarked
 NP-internal position always preserved when the adjective
 is used predicatively?
(c) Are there other morphological/syntactic alternations in
 adjectives, aside from position, that correlate with meaning

First of all, many thanks to all the people who replied.

Ken Beesley
Stavros Macrakis
Robert S. Kirsner
Paul Black
Kevin Donnelly
Tony Killeen
Vovian Cook
Sharon L. Shelly
Si Teng
David Denison
Lucia Tovena
Luiz Arthur Pagani
Claudia Brugman

Various people pointed out examples in other Romance languages
analogous to the ones I have in Italian. E.g. French (Stavros Macrakis,
Lucia Tovena).

Un grand homme un homme grand
A great man A man big

Two people point out what I believe to be a slightly different
distinction, i.e. the restrictive vs. non-restrictive usage of an
adjective in the two positions in Spanish (Beesley Ken) and Portugese, w.r.t.
possessive adjectives (Luiz Arthur Pagani)

> From:
> Adjective placement in Spanish and Portuguese can sometimes be used to
> distinguish restrictive and non-restrictive readings:
> su linda mujer "your beautiful wife"
> su mujer linda "your wife beautiful"
> The first example, with the preposed adjective, often has a
> non-restrictive reading, as in "your wife, who is beautiful." The second
> is more likely to be read as "your wife who is beautiful [as opposed to
> one of your other, less beautiful, wives]." This phenomenon is almost
> certainly tied to the given/new, theme/rheme (functional sentence
> perspective) kinds of distinction explored by several linguistic schools,
> but notably the Prague School. If you aren't acquainted with these, the
> basic notion is that there is a subtle pressure in utterances to put known
> or given information earlier in the sentence and new information later.
> These theories are especially useful for explaining why a speaker chooses
> a particular word order for a particular sentence when speaking a language
> with relatively free word order, like the Slavic languages. Although the
> word order in romance languages is somewhat less free, the preposed
> adjective would still tend to have the more given or incidental
> meaning--it's just being tossed in as an incidental comment: cf. the
> usual readings of "your beautiful country," "your admirable work in
> genetics," "these scurrilous comment," "his kind assistance," etc.
> The postposed adjective adjective would be more likely to convey new,
> vital, or distinguishing information.
> Where word order is even more rigid, as in English, contrastive stress may
> sometimes convey the same distinction.
> your beautiful wife
> your BEAUTIFUL wife
> Stress and other intonational effects, though quite real, are often difficult
> or inconvenient to express in an everyday orthography, so they are often
> overlooked. But the contrastive stress differentiating "BEAUTIFUL" from
> "beautiful" in the examples above might be analyzed as a morphological affix
> every bit as real as a suffix like -s or -ing.
> Ken Beesley

> From: LUIZ ARTHUR <>

Various people have pointed out that analogous contrasts exist in English
(V.J. Cook, C. Brugman, examples from Bolinger (1969), McCawly (1988)),
and Old English (David Denison):

> From: Cook V J <>
> Doubtles other people will have drawn your attention to "little" in
> English; "little nice man" (little=size) versus nice little mnan" (little
> = condescending dimuntive.

> From:
> I'm sorry to respond so late. Here is one lead for you from English:
> Bolinger noted that in certain restricted cases, adjective placement can
> have different effects--nothing so dramatic as the Romance cases.
> Just throw me any handy tool.
> Just throw my any tool handy.
> If you get both of these, there's a subtle difference in meaning -- in the
> second case, *handy* is a contingent or temporary property (e.g. it's
> ready to hand) while in the first case it's a more inherent property of the
> tool that it's handy (e.g. it's the right tool for the job).
> --Claudia Brugman

This has an interesting correlation with data from Italian. Some Italian
adjectives are ambiguous between a `temporary' and an `inherent' meaning
(between denoting stage-level and individual-level properties, in the
terminology of Carlson (1977)). E.g. "pronto" (ready/quick) "aperto"
(open/open-minded) "assente" (absent/absent-minded). The stage-level
meaning is possible ONLY in post-nominal position, the individual level
usually in both positions (with non-restrictive interpretation in pre-N

Il professore assente L'assente professore
The professor (who is) absent The absent-minded professor

> From: David Denison <>
> Instant response to your LINGUIST query. The Old English "adjective"
> _an_ `one' may precede or follow its head noun. If it precedes it
> means `one', if it follows it means `alone'. There are also
> differences in declension: the `one' meaning correlates with
> strong (indefinite) declension, the `alone' with weak (definite),
> though less reliably. The unmarked (but not 100% categorical)
> position for adjectives is preposed in OE.
> Best,
> David Denison(Dr) David Denison

Analogous contrast with the adjective "solo" (only/alone) in Italian. has a peculiar contrast with Polish. I wanted to
check these data with a Polish speaker, but unfortunately I couldn't find

> Polish puts adjectives in certain classes after
> the noun. So _pewna osoba_ is a certain person, whereas _osoba pewna siebie_
> is a person sure of him/herself. There could be other examples. Russian has
> many examples like Ona xoroshA 'she's pretty' vs. ona xorOshaja 'she's good'.

I am much in debt with Kevin Donnelly, who--- with the help of the
Gaelic Language Bullettin Board---has been a goldmine of interesting
examples from a non-Romance language.

> (Caoimhin P. ODonnaile)
> Gaelic (I will use examples from Irish Gaelic)
> also has certain common adjectives which can precede the noun, even though
> the adjective normally follows the noun.
> Here are some examples off the top of my head of meaning shifts involving
> the word "mo/r" (big). - (I write `/' for an acute accent on the preceding
> vowel.) They may not be exactly what you want, because conventionally
> "mo/r" is written as joined to the other noun when it precedes the other
> noun.
> Kevin Donnelly
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
> cuid mho/r - a large part
> mo/rchuid - majority
> ciorcal mo/r - a large circle
> mo/rchiorcal - a great circle (e.g. on the globe)
> slua mo/r - a big host of people
> mo/rshlua - the majority/mass of the people/a big host of people
> seanfhocal - a proverb (although it's a bit wider than "proverb" in English)
> focal sean - an old word
> Here's one from the dictionary, so less trustworthy:
> o/g-ghluaiseacht - a youth movement (= youth organisation)
> gluaiseacht o/g - a young (= new) movement
> gearrscanna/n - a short (of a film)
> scanna/n gearr - a short film
> gearrscri/obh - shorthand
> scri/obh gearr - short writing ??
> gearrshiopado/ir - a haberdasher
> siopado/ir gearr - a short (= not tall) shopkeeper
> Here's another example I received after puting your query on GAELIC-L.
> > From: Tony Killeen <kille001STAFF.TC.UMN.EDU>
> > [...]
> >
> > Bodach gearr -- a short lout
> > Gearrbhodach -- a youth
> Here are another couple of examples I was given from Irish Gaelic
> (Donegal dialect). The words
> glas-sto/cach
> caolghasu/r
> both mean a boy, not quite a man.
> "sto/cach glas" would mean "a green lad"
> "gasu/r caol" would mean "a thin boy"

Si Teng observes that in Chinese post-N adjectives are interpreted as

> From:
> This may not be what you're looking for in your query. But the
> position of adjectives can make a great difference in Chinese, since
> adjectives function as a predicate at post-nominal position. For
> example in Mandarin:
> (i) zhongguo (heng) da.
> China very big
> 'China is (very) big.'

********** Bibliography: **************

> Flora Klein-Andreu's article on the semantics of adjective position in
> Spanish in the 1983 book she edited DISCOURSE PERSPECTIVES ON SYNTAX.
> Academic Press.
> Bolinger, D.: "Adjectives in English: Attribution and predication".
> Lingua 18, 1967.
> McCawley, J., The Syntactic Phenomena of English, Vol. 2.(??), U. of Chicago
> Press. 1988.

Also relevant is my own work, ``Pre-N modifiers, Degree Phrases and
the Structure of AP'', to appear in the University of Venice Working
Papers in Linguistics.

If you have comments, please send them directly to me
( Currently I cannot read large volumes
of mail, so I have temporarily suspended my subscription to Linguists.

- Roberto Zamparelli
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