Polarity sensitive expressions in child mandarin

Aijun Huang*, Stephen Crain

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


In addition to serving as question markers with interrogative force, wh-words such as shenme ‘what’ in Mandarin Chinese have a noninterrogative meaning. For the noninterrogative meaning, these words have been typically analyzed as negative polarity items, i.e., as wh-pronouns that are similar in meaning to the English NPI any and to its Mandarin counterpart renhe. This accounts for the None reading that is generated in negative statements with wh-words. However, negative sentences with the wh-word shenme ‘what’ can also be assigned another reading, in certain circumstances. We refer to this as the Insignificance (not much) reading. This reading is not possible for sentences with the NPI renhe. The None reading is the default interpretation for negative sentences with either renhe or shenme because the Insignificance reading of the negated shenme sentences requires contextual support. Like English “not much,” the Insignificance reading of negated shenme sentences in Mandarin makes a sentence true in a broader range of circumstances than the corresponding sentence with the NPI renhe. Both the fact that the Insignificance reading requires contextual support and considerations of language learnability in the absence of negative evidence lead us to expect the Insignificance reading to emerge later than the None reading in the course of language development. An experimental study of Mandarin-speaking children of different ages supported this expectation. The youngest group of children only assigned the None reading to negative sentences with shenme as well as to sentences with renhe. However, older children and adults accessed the Insignificance reading.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberA003
Pages (from-to)339-364
Number of pages26
JournalLanguage Acquisition
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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