Macquarie University
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The children's acquisition of shenme in Mandarin Chinese

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posted on 2022-03-28, 09:21 authored by Min Liao
Mandarin Chinese is known as an in-situ language. In Mandarin, wh-questions are not formed by displacing wh-phrases, as in English. Rather, Mandarin wh-phrases remain in their argument positions in the surface syntax. Attesting to this characterization of Mandarin is the fact that wh-words can be used both to ask questions and to make statements. In statements, the wh-word shenme ‘what’ is similar in meaning to the existential expression renhe (English ‘any’), and it is semantically related to the disjunction word huozhe (English ‘or’). This thesis explores Mandarin-speaking children’s interpretations of the wh-word shenme ‘what’ by comparing its interpretation to that of renhe ‘any’ and huozhe ‘or’ in three formally distinct linguistic contexts. The distributional and interpretive patterns of these expressions are used in a series of experimental investigations to assess children’s knowledge of the semantic properties of these contexts. In one set of (upward entailing) contexts, shenme ‘what’ is a question marker, renhe ‘any’ is prohibited, and the disjunction word huozhe ‘or’ has disjunctive truth conditions. In the second set of contexts (downward entailing, but not antiadditive), shenme remains a question marker, and huozhe continues to be assigned disjunctive truth conditions; however, renhe is permitted in these contexts. The third set of (downward entailing, anti-additive) contexts includes the Mandarin adverbial quantifier dou ‘all.’ In such contexts, shenme, renhe, and huozhe are all licensed, but they yield a ‘conjunctive’ meaning that is different in character from the meanings of these expressions in the other linguistic contexts. Despite this intricate pattern, the findings from the experimental studies demonstrated Mandarin-speaking children’s mastery of the semantics of shenme, renhe and huozhe. The findings are interpreted as evidence of the linguistic competence by young children to compose the complex meanings of sentences with multiple logical expressions. This study offers new data on the acquisition of logical expressions, and reveals the importance of the principles of linguistic theory, and logic, in explaining the course of child language development. The study also sheds new light on the special linguistic properties of Mandarin.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. On the different kinds of NPIs in Mandarin -- Chapter 3. Mandarin-speaking children's knowledge of dou -- Chapter 4. On the acquisition of existential qualified items in Mandarin -- Chapter 5. Conclusion.


Theoretical thesis. Includes bibliographical references

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Linguistics

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Rosalind Thornton

Additional Supervisor 1

Stephen Crain


Copyright Min Liao 2014. Copyright disclaimer:




1 online resource (xiv, 238 pages) colour illustrations

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