In 2015, the Swedish Research Council generously granted funding to Principal Investigator Elizabeth Coppock for a 4-year cross-linguistic research project called Most and more: Quantity superlatives across languages. The project is carried out through the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics, and Theory of Science at the University of Gothenburg, where Coppock maintains a part-time position alongside her primary role as an Assistant Professor at Boston University.
The focus of the project is on how languages express comparison between quantities (in comparison to qualities). While most documentary grammars cover whether and how a language forms the comparative and superlative of ordinary gradable adjectives like tall, they do not always cover how to form the comparative and superlative of quantity words like many, much, little, and few so there is documentation work to be done in this area. This is an important area to document because when it comes to the superlatives of quantity words such as English most, there is a vast amount of cross-linguistic diversity, even within closely related languages.
For example, English makes a distinction between most and the most. The sentence Gloria has visited most continents can be used to convey the message that Gloria has visited approximately more than half of the continents. On the other hand, the sentence Gloria has visited the most continents just implies that Gloria has visited more continents than anyone in the relevant comparison class. The former interpretation is called a proportional reading and the latter is called a relative reading. In Swedish, the role of definiteness is just the opposite: A definite-marked quantity superlative (de flesta) has only a proportional reading, while a quantity superlative that lacks definiteness-marking (flest) has only a relative reading. Coppock’s recent paper on Germanic shows that every single possible correlation between definiteness and interpretation is attested among the Germanic languages, although there are a number of consistent patterns.
Variation like this is what stimulated interest in looking more broadly at the languages of the world. If there can be so much variation just among Germanic languages, imagine how much we might learn by broadening our perspective.
To find out about how quantities are expressed in a given language, we have so far been using a simple translation questionnaire, supplemented by follow-up interviews. (Master’s student Golsa Nouri-Hosseini has been developing and testing picture-based methods for eliciting superlatives, which we plan to transition to in the next phase of data-collection.)
The results so far have revealed a diverse range of systems. And yet despite the fact that this area of grammar seems to be a particularly unstable one, we have identified at least one typological universal, which we argue to be grounded in general constraints on comparison classes.