Syntactic Cues to Individuation in Mandarin Chinese

Volume 10
Issue 2
Pierina Cheung, David Barner, & Peggy Li
When presented with an entity (e.g., a wooden honey-dipper) labeled with a novel noun, how does a listener know that the noun refers to an instance of an object kind (honey-dipper) rather than to a substance kind (wood)? While English speakers draw upon count-mass syntax for clues to the noun’s meaning, linguists have proposed that classifier languages, which lack count-mass syntax, provide other syntactic cues. Three experiments tested Mandarin-speakers’ sensitivity to the diminutive suffix -zi and the general classifier ge when interpreting novel nouns. Experiment 1 found that -zi occurs more frequently with nouns that denote object kinds. Experiment 2 demonstrated Mandarin-speaking adults’ sensitivity to ge and -zi when inferring novel word meanings. Experiment 3 tested Mandarin three- to six-year-olds’ sensitivity to ge. We discuss differences in the developmental course of these cues relative to cues in English, and the impact of this difference to children’s understanding of individuation.

Keywords: individuation, numeral classifiers, Mandarin –zi morpheme, mass nouns, count nouns, bare nouns, word meaning