The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LFRG 11/4 - Lisa Bylinina

Speaker: Lisa Bylinina
Title: Low degrees, comparatives, and how they are related
Location: 32D-831
Time: Friday, Nov 4, 1:00PM-2:30PM


Very little is known about the diachronic sources of comparative morphemes. Even in cases when the origin of a comparative morpheme is clear, the development is quite often hard to make sense of.

The case I will discuss is hypothesized in (Dixon 2008): “It is possible that a diminutive affix could develop into an Index of comparison. No examples of such a path of development are currently known.”

Tatar and Bashkir are examples of precisely this pattern, modulo terminology: morpheme “-rak” performing low degree modification in both of them also marks gradable predicates in comparative constructions. However, while in Bashkir “-rak”-comparative has replaced the common Turkic unmarked comparative, in Tatar the two strategies co-exist in free variation.

Another pair of languages to consider is Russian and Bulgarian. Bulgarian comparative morpheme “po” is a relative of Russian low degree modifier “po-” that appears on comparative forms of adjectives.

Interestingly, there are certain comparative contexts in which Tatar “-rak” and Russian “po-” are obligatory — all of these are contexts without (overt) standard of comparison. Exploring the landscape of these “incomplete comparatives”, I suggest that the relevant ones are so-called “superlative comparatives”, as in “the taller building in the picture” (Gawron 1995). I will try to push the idea that the meaning of superlative comparatives makes them particularly useful for reasoning about small differences within a domain in a way that neither positives nor superlatives are; this is where low degrees and comparatives meet.