The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics Colloquium: Roumyana Pancheva

Roumyana Pancheva

“One -er, (sort of) two thans”

March 14th, 2008, 3:30pm

Room 32-141

There will be a party in Roumi’s honor beginning at 6:30pm at Sabine’s place.


The syntax of comparatives shows a fair amount of variability cross-linguistically, but there are also patterns that call for an explanation. A number of languages have phrasal comparatives like the English ‘Mary is taller than me’. The syntactic behavior of the nominal following ‘than’ appears to support a direct analysis of these comparatives, with a degree operator ‘-er’ selecting an individual-denoting PP argument. Such an analysis, however, comes at a cost. The phrasal ‘-er’ has to be different from the ‘-er’ in clausal comparatives (‘Mary is taller than I am’), but languages do not seem to distinguish morphologically between two ‘-ers’. ‘Than’ is required to be semantically empty, yet its counterparts are commonly drawn from among certain spatial prepositions. In this talk, I suggest that the lexical inventory of comparative operators is limited to a single ‘-er’, whose arguments are predicates of degrees. ‘Than’ and its counterparts are partitive prepositions. Like partitive ‘of’ (‘a liter of the water’) and pseudo-partitive ‘of’ (‘a liter of water’), ‘than’ may have a definite description of degrees or a predicate of degrees as a complement. Clausal comparatives may instantiate both partitive types, depending on the nature of the ‘wh-’ degree operator in the ‘than’-clause. Phrasal comparatives may be derived from clauses that lack the CP layer and the ‘wh-’ degree operator residing there; consequently, such small clauses are interpreted as predicates of degrees, complements to pseudo-partitive ‘than’. Ultimately, the syntax of comparatives turns out to be rather tightly constrained, and to show cross-domain parallels.