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Academic Paper


Title: Subjectivity, indefiniteness and semantic change
Author: Turo Vartiainen
Institution: University of Helsinki
Linguistic Field: Semantics
Abstract: In this article I discuss article usage in NPs with subjective and objective adjectival premodifiers. The main topic of the article is the tendency of semantically subjective adjectives to be used in indefinite NPs. This correlation is independent of the frequency of the adjective, and the uneven article distribution becomes even more skewed when an overt indicator of subjectivity, such as very or much, is introduced to the NP. I explain this tendency in terms of accessibility: subjective modifiers provide the speaker with a way of expressing a personal evaluation of the referent, and this evaluation is typically new information in discourse. Consequently, subjective premodifiers strongly favour indefinite NPs. By contrast, objective modifiers often encode information that is typical of the referent or else accessible from context or through world knowledge. Because the information expressed by the modifier is accessible, the accessibility of the discourse referent itself determines article choice, and the distribution of articles is more even. I also show that the connection between subjectivity and indefiniteness may provide the linguist with a useful tool in semantic disambiguation and diachronic research. Case studies of two polysemous -ing participles, moving and glowing, show that when used as a nominal premodifier, the subjective sense of the word (e.g. moving, ‘emotionally touching’) strongly favours indefinite NPs over definite NPs. We will also see that when a participle (outstanding) or a noun (key) develops a subjective sense and undergoes category change to adjective, the new sense is particularly often used in indefinite constructions, and the semantic change and gradual adjectivisation of the word is mirrored in the gradual increase in the use of indefinite NPs.

CUP AT LINGUIST

This article appears IN English Language and Linguistics Vol. 17, Issue 1.

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