LINGUIST List 8.1001

Fri Jul 4 1997

Sum: Comparatives

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Jan K Lindstrom, Comparatives

Message 1: Comparatives

Date: Wed, 2 Jul 1997 10:58:13 +0300
From: Jan K Lindstrom <>
Subject: Comparatives

Summary: Intensification of the comparative

I had in May on the List (8.758) a query on the intensification of
comparative forms in different languages. Here comes the summary
related to the query (I am sorry about the slight delay!). As I noted
earlier, my better linguistic competence limits to Germanic languages
plus Finnish where in all the comparative (of adjective, adverb,
quantitative pronoun) is typically intensified with an adverb denoting
some form of totality:

1. a. The train went faster.
 b. The train went ever faster. (Also: all the faster)

2. a. Der Zug fuhr schneller.
 b. Der Zug fuhr immer schneller.

3. a. Ta'get gick fortare.
 b. Ta'get gick allt fortare.

4. a. Juna meni lujempaa.
 b. Juna meni yha" lujempaa. (Also: aina lujempaa)

The intensifiers, e.g. EVER in English, are in all these cases some
kind of universal quantifiers, the content being approximately
'always' or 'all the way' (see e.g. Vendler). Since the pattern shows
some regularity, I was curious to gather information about
functionally corresponding expressions in other languages.

Indeed, I did receive some further parallel examples, and moreover,
there was some discussion about the appropriateness of the English
example I had in the query (1b above). Many thanks to the people who
responded: (E. Wayles Browne)
Larry Horn <>
Ton van der Wouden <>
Allan Wechsler <>
Knud Lambrecht <>
adiego lajara <>
Asya Pereltsvaig <>
Waruno Mahdi <> (Gerald A. Barker MD)
Philip Grew <>

As always, my wordings were a bit too implicit in the beginning. There
are, of course, several ways of intensifying (or modifying) the
comparative. A very normal form would be intensification of the
degree, e.g.

5. He is much faster than the rest of the guys.

Two individuals possessing a quality may also be compared with each
other and one of the qaulities intensified in relation to the other:

6. Jack is fast but Bob is even faster.

Perhaps it was my Swedish perspective that led to the too general and
implicit use of the label 'comparative intensifier'. It seems, namely,
that Swedish has in ALLT (see 3 above) an adverb that may be used as
an intensifier only with the comparative (other adverbs may also be
used but this is a kind of a prototype, as one can understand on the
basis of Wessen's grammar, for instance), whereas the general
intensifier MYCKET ('much', 'very') may be used both with the positive
and the comparative (type 5 then). The distribution is not perhaps as
strict in all languages and with all expressions. As regards, for
example, Finnish YHA", it may be used in other contexts too, but it
seems that it has a more specialized (grammaticized?) intensifying
function when modifying a comparative, e.g.

7. a. Jaana on yha" kaunis. time adv.
 'Jane is still beautiful'
 b. Jaanasta tulee yha" kauniimpi. intensifer
 'Jane becomes ever more beautiful'

But this shows only that intensifiers that merely relate to the
comparative do have a temporal implication. As a consequence, it seems
that the comparative expresses a dynamic quality (or degree) that is
opposed to the more stable positions of the positive and the
superlative degrees; the comparative represents a step in one
direction but not to a definite point on a scale. The temporal
intensifiers of the comparative focus on this implication of dynamism
which, in turn, is often associated with successive development,
change or process (cf. the dynamism of verbs). Moreover, the
succession is signalled to be constant and ever-present -- and here we
find the motivation of the universal quantifiers (literally EVER)
typically used with the comprative.

We might want to look at some examples provided by the respondents
(the names of which are given in appropriate language sections below):

 * * * * *
- -

8. a. De trein ging sneller
 b. De trein ging alsmaar sneller
 c. De trein ging steeds sneller

*Steeds* and *alsmaar* (also written as *almaar*) are universal
temporal quantifiers (over a restricted domain - *altijd* is more
Ton van der Wouden
- --

9. El tren iba cada vez ma's ra'pido
 "cada vez", lit. "each time"

10. El tren anava cada vegada/cada cop me's ra`pid
 "cada vegada, cada cop",lit. "each time"

NB: a', e' etc.: vowels with acute accent; a`, o` = vowels with grave
accent. Ignasi-Xavier Adiego ----

11. Il treno andava sempre piu veloce.

What I suspect will interest you here is that 'standard' Italian (like
most other Romance dialects, as I assume you will be told by readers
expert in those) uses the word that translates "always" (SEMPRE) as
the comparative intensifier you asked about.
Philip Grew
- --

12. Poezd exal bystree.
 train went faster
[more felicitous if the individual compared to is explicit as in 13.]

13. Poezd exal bystree chem mashina
 train went faster than car

14. Poezd exal vse bystree.
 train went all faster
 'the train went ever faster'
Asya Pereltsvaig
- --

15. a. Vlak je is"ao brz"e.
 train Aux went faster-Adverb
 b. Vlak je is"ao sve brz"e (i brz"e).

16. a. Voz je is"ao brz"e.
 b. Voz je is"ao sve brz"e (i brz"e).

s", z" = letters with hac"ek on top.
sve 'all' neuter singular nom./acc.
Wayles Browne
- --

In Indonesian, the situation is a bit different, compare:

17. a. Kere'taapi berjalan lebih cepat
 train | go-STAT | MOD | fast "the train goes/went faster"
 (i.e. it went faster than the car, horse, other train)

 b. Kere'taapi berjalan makin cepat
 train | go-STAT | MOD | fast "the train goes/went ever faster"
 (i.e. it went constantly faster than it itself did in the 
	preceding moment(s))

WHERE: e' is &eacute; (pronounced like French &egrave;, IPA epsilon;)
 e is pronounced like French e, IPA  [upside-down "e"])
 c is pronounced like English ch, Italian ci
 STAT = stative (expresses verbal "action" as state of being)
 MOD = modifier
 goes/went - there is no category of tense in Indonesian, and
 time of "action" is expressed circumstantially,
 by adverbs, circumstantial phrases, etc., also
 of course by context etc.

So, in Indonesian we do not intesify the comparative degree of
comparison, but have a distinct accelerative "degree of
comparison". The complete paradigm is:
 comparative: _lebih cepat_ "faster"
 accelerative: _makin cepat_ "ever faster"
 intensive: _sangat cepat_ "very fast"
 superlative: _paling cepat_ "(the) fastest"
 excessive: _terlalu cepat_ "too fast"
 insufficient: _kurang cepat_ "not fast enough"
 negative: _tidak cepat_ "not fast"

Strictly speaking, of course, this should probably not be seen as the
set of forms of degrees of comparison, but a set of adjectival
modifiers in combination with an adjective.
 Waruno Mahdi
 * * * *

The above cases confirm the pattern that comparative forms tend to be
intensified with a universal quatifier if its dynamic implications are
to be amplified. The term 'accelerative' in context of Indonesian is
illustrative - - although not totally accurate: it is also the only
adjectival modification category that is associated with the
comparative in the translation (apart from comparative 'proper').

One could think that the discussed expressions represent a "special
case" of comparison, since there is not usually any explicit reference
point in the expressions of the 'ever faster' type (i.e. a
THAN-complement). That is why Browne terms the use "free
comparative". On the other hand, there is nothing unusual in the use
of this comparative; it seems to be an application of the temporal
comparative as in, for instance:

18. Jack has become faster than before.

Koenig suggests instead the term "cumulative comparative", since the
development is related to the temporal and the reference is often
clearly enough understood in the context (the term could be better for
the Indonesian 'accelerative' too):

19. Jack has become ever faster.

could in principle be a thinkable notional parallel to 18 (cf. also
17b above).

Now, 19 (and 1b for that matter) may be a bit odd for English
speakers, having seen the reactions on EVER in my original query. EVER
is as an intensifier considered to be "stilted, literary,
old-fashioned, high-style", regarded as inference from German IMMER,
or by Americans labeled as "British". Instead, most speakers prefer a
semantically corresponding expression consisting of conjoined
syntactic reduplication:

20. Jack has become/becomes faster and faster.

Dictionaries and grammars of English also note this construction with
the comparative (Zandvoort gives it even a name, "comparative of
gradation"), so the expressive pattern can be regarded as quite
established in English. It is not unique, though. Most European
languages allow the pattern Comp + and + Comp at least in informal
register, and, I may reveal it now, these kinds of expressions are the
object of study in my research on syntactic reduplication in Swedish.

The principally interesting thing is that languages seem to have
different preferences as regards different intensifying
patterns. English is perhaps most liberal in rather freely allowing
conjoined repetition of type 20, whereas Koenig points out that German
prefers expressions with an intensifier (IMMER). The data I have
surveyed seem to suggest that Swedish is somewhere in between these

The pattern Comp + and + Comp is theoretically interesting in that it
expresses the same content as EVER by iconicity. Repetition stands for
iteration and continuity (EVER, ALLT, SEMPRE, YHA", CADA VEZ),
coordination enhances the meaning, since it implies with repetition
non-simultaneity and asymmetry. Even more intriguing is that some
linguists (e.g. Koenig, Lang) draw a parallel between coordination and
universal quantification. So we have a full circle here.

As a final remark, I would like to remind that structures of the kind
X + and + X are not limited to the comparative. It is quite usual to
hear the use of this pattern with, for instance, verbs in colloquial

21. Jack ran and ran.

However, the use has not for some reason become as widely established
with verbs. Perhaps there is a larger resource of aspectual verbal and
adverbial modifiers for verbs than the comparative, and, thus, less
need for the somehow 'naive' iterative pattern. The last assesment
does not come out of the blue, but it is traditionally stated that
different uses of repetitions are typical of, not only the language of
poetry, but also among women and children or in texts designed for
children, such as fairy tales (note: this is merely a quote -- I would
not put it in this way!). What does this amount to? Reasonably,
repetition is favored in discourse types where (inter-) personal
involvement has an important role.

Further comments on the topic are, of course, welcome. The above
summary is written in a relative haste, so I apologize for any
shortcomings or misunderstandings!

The end of this message contains a list of works referred to.

Thank you for your interest and have a nice summer!
(which has been real warm and sunny up here...)

Jan K. Lindstrom
Scandinavian languages and literature
University of Helsinki


Browne, Wayles. 1964. On adjectival comparisons and reduplication in
English. Unpublished manuscript.

Koenig, Ekkehard. 1971. Kumulative Komparative. In: Beitraege zur
generativen Grammatik. Schriften zur Linguistik 3. Pp. 100-111.

Lang, Ewald. 1984. The semantics of coordination. John Benjamins,

Vendler, Zeno. 1967. Each and every and all. In: Linguistics in
philosophy. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, London.

Wessen, Elias. 1970. Vaart svenska spraak. Almqvist & Wiksell,

Zandvoort, R.W. 1975 (1962). A handbook of English grammar. 7th
ed. Longman, London.
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