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Colloquium with Elizabeth Coppock, Boston University

Title:  Universals in Superlative Semantics

 

Abstract:  This talk reports on the results of a broad cross-linguistic study on the semantics of quantity words such as ‘many' in the superlative (e.g. ‘most'). While some languages use such a form to express both a relative reading (as in 'Gloria has visited the most continents') and a proportional reading (as in 'Gloria has visited most continents'), the vast majority do not allow the latter, though all allow the former.  Absolute readings for the superlatives of ordinary gradable adjectives, in contrast, are universal. I propose an explanation for this cross-linguistic generalization, centered around two core assumptions: quantity words denote gradable predicates of degrees, while proportional readings involve a comparison class of individuals. Proportional readings, I suggest, arise in rare cases when the former assumption is violated.