The Semantics of Determiners

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NP Semantics June sent

vreun peşte sau vreo raţă.
v-a fish or v-a.Fem duck
‘In the pond behind the station, something splashed briefly, some fish or some duck.
(Farkas 2002b, (15e), p.137)

In (66) the vreun indefinite is necessarily interpreted as having scope under the adverb of quantification din cînd în cînd ‘from time to time’: there is a pairing of particular times and stations where the train stopped; in (67) the vreun indefinites are interpreted as hypothetical: the cause of the noise might have been some fish or it might have been some duck but the speaker does not have a particular fish/duck in mind.

As the reader might have already guessed, vreun indefinites cannot occur in ordinary episodic sentences, such as (68):

(68) *Maria a invitat vreun student.

M. has invited v-a student

Nor can they occur in the NS of a quantificational expression or in the consequent of a conditional:

(69) *Fiecare fată a dansat cu vreun băiat.

every girl has danced with v-a boy
*Dacă Maria a sosit vreun băiat a plecat.
if M. has arrived v-a boy has left

I am not aware of any single simple generalization that would account for all the distribution constraints of this indefinite. One constraint involved is the requirement of existential force. Exactly how this requirement is to be implemented depends on technical issues that we do not go into here. If one assumes existential quantifiers strategically placed at various junctures in the syntax, the existential requirement amounts to having to be bound by such a quantifier. In the simple DRT terms we have assumed, the requirement would concern the manner in which the variable is connected to the model and would require a simple, default update of an input function. This requirement then rules out ‘universal’ any interpretations for vreun indefinites, a meaning area reserved for orice in Romanian. Second, just like in the case of cîte, the interpretation of vreun indefinites must involve some alternatives that differ with respect to the value they assign to the discourse referent introduced by vreun. This requirement rules out vreun indefinites in ordinary episodic sentences and forces them to be interpreted as having narrow scope relative to some variation inducing operator. Crucially, however, unlike cîte indefinites, vreun does not care about co-variation: there does not have to be some other discourse referent with which the discourse referent introduced by vreun co-varies. A case in point is the scope of a negative operator which induces variation but not co-variation. We have seen that vreun indefinites are possible in such environments but cîte indefinites are not.

Next, vreun indefinites have an extra component that a simple variation requirement does not express, namely the fact that their value choice should be random. In the case of co-variation, this means that there should be no special property that is responsible for the particular pairing of values of the two discourse referents. In the other cases -- such as the negative or the interrogative -- the implication is that all that matters here is that the value of the discourse referent introduced by vreun be within the set denoted by its sister NP and nothing else. There is no special property that is to distinguish it from other entities in that set. There must be alternative values, and they are all equal. This renders them close to Vlachou’s ‘indiscriminate’ FC items. Vreun indefinites, however, are not simply ‘indiscriminate’ in her sense: they do not require an agentive predicate and their descriptive content is not the focus of negation.

The fact that the values have to be chosen without any regard to their properties other than that of belonging to the set denoted by the NP component could be responsible for the impossibility of vreun indefinites in generic sentences:

(70) *Vreo pisică e deşteaptă.

v-a.Fem cat is clever

This ‘homogeneous’ domain requirement is a property vreun indefinites share with universal ‘free choice’ items and is akin to ‘indifference’ or ‘ignorance’ flavours associated with free relatives exemplified in (71), but is not identical to it:

(71) a. Whatever John cooked last night had a lot of garlic in it.

b. Whatever John cooks on Fridays has a lot of garlic in it.
c. I grabbed whatever tool was handy.

Finally, more needs to be said about vreun indefinites to rule them out of the NS of a quantificational structure, the consequent of conditionals or the scope of verbs like want. A possibility suggested in Farkas (2006) is that vreun indefinites have a weak existential commitment, requiring there to be relevant situations or alternatives in which the discourse referent does not have a verifying value. This requirement, appropriately refined and made precise might entail the variation requirement as well as the existential force requirement.

Finally, just like with the other specially marked indefinite seen here, the existence of vreun does not block the use of an unmarked indefinite in the environments that license the former. Although using vreun in the grammatical examples above is more natural than using an unmarked indefinite, the latter is not ruled out under a narrow scope interpretation.

This tour of special indefinites in Romanian is not exhaustive even if we restrict our attention to the existential side. Romanian has a complex indefinite close to a certain NP, namely un anume NP. Furthermore, both orice and vreun have partitive counterparts (oricare/vreunul). We will stop the discussion here, however, by simply highlighting the existence of this rich variety of indefinite determiners, characteristic not only of Romanian but of many other languages.25 Despite the attention lavished on indefinites in the past twenty years, there are many details of the semantic typology of ‘special’ indefinites that await further study.

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