Macquarie University
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Acquisition of polarity-sensitive items in Mandarin Chinese

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posted on 2022-03-28, 21:13 authored by Aijun Huang
In Mandarin Chinese wh-pronouns such as shenme 'what' and shei 'who' are widely interpreted as negative polarity items, due to the similarity in distribution and interpretation between wh-pronouns and the polarity sensitive item any in English. Against this general theoretical background, this thesis contends that wh-pronouns in Mandarin Chinese are not homogeneous. I illustrate this by examining the interpretation of two wh-pronouns, namely, shenme 'what' and ji-ge 'how many-classifier'. I particularly focus on the interpretation of these two wh-pronouns in simple negative statements. While negated shenme sentences receive both a 'none' reading and an 'insignificance' reading, negated ji-ge sentences receive a 'small-amount' reading. Both cases depart from negative statements containing renhe (which is the Chinese equivalent of English any); negated renhe sentences can only be assigned the 'none' reading. Various semantic and pragmatic factors contribute the interpretation of renhe, shenme and ji-ge in negative statements, and these theoretical issues have implications for child language development. In a series of controlled experiments, I investigated Mandarin-speaking children's comprehension of (i) sentences containing negative polarity item renhe; (ii) sentences containing free choice renhe; (iii) negated renhe sentences versus negated shenme sentences; (iv) negated ji-ge sentences. The general findings are that while the relevant pragmatic knowledge as related to the interpretation of these polarity items are delayed in Mandarin-speaking children, their semantic knowledge of these polarity items are in place early in the course of language development. This study offers new data on the acquisition of polarity sensitive items, and sheds new light on the linguistic theory of wh-pronouns in Mandarin Chinese.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Acquisition of the polarity sensitive item renhe 'any' in Mandarin Chinese -- 3. Interpretation of the wh-pronoun shenme 'what' in Mandarin Chinese -- 4. Acquisition of the wh-pronoun shenme 'what' in Mandarin Chinese -- 5. Acquisition of the wh-pronoun ji 'how many' in Mandarin Chinese -- 6. Polarity sensitivity decomposed: concluding remarks -- Appendix


"May 2013" Thesis by publication. "A thesis submitted to the Department of Cognitive Science in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia" Includes bibliographical references

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Cognitive Science

Department, Centre or School

Department of Cognitive Science

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Stephen Crain

Additional Supervisor 1

Rosalind Thornton


Copyright Aijun Huang 2013. Copyright disclaimer:




1 online resource (xiv, 208 pages) illustrations (some colour)

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