The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Summer Talk Series 6/11 - Boer Fu (MIT)

Speaker: Boer Fu (MIT)
Title: Negative Yes/No Questions in Mandarin
Time: Thursday, June 11th, 12:30pm – 2pm

Abstract: An utterance in the shape of a negative yes/no question in Mandarin Chinese can have 4 different readings, depending on its prosody.

(1) zhe bu shi burudongwu ma

this neg is mammal ma

Reading A: “Isn’t it a mammal?” Biased question reading

Reading B: “It’s not a mammal?” Surprised question reading

Reading C: “It’s a mammal. (It’s obvious.)” Rhetorical “question” reading

Reading D: “It’s not a mammal. (It’s obvious.)” ​Negative obvious statement

Two prosodic cues disambiguate between the 4 readings, boundary tone and focus. Readings A & B have a high boundary tone, and are thus real questions. Whereas readings C & D have a low boundary tone, are are thus assertions. Readings A & C place the focus on the content word “mammal”, while readings B & D place it on negation. I argue that the difference in focus placement corresponds to a scoping difference of negation. Negation can occupy two syntactic positions in Mandarin (Xiang 2013). Focused negation is lower, while unfocused negation is higher. In the real question readings A & B, the relative position of negation and the VERUM operator (Romero & Han 2004) determines which preposition (p or ¬p) is being double-checked, just like preposed negative yes/no questions in English. In the assertion readings C & D, negation scopes relative to a mystery obviousness operator, which leads to two opposite assertions, p and ¬p.