A typological universal

Based on data collected from over 100 languages, drawn from every continent and over 25 different language families, we have found evidence for a possible linguistic universal:

If a language uses the superlative of much or many to express a proportional reading, then it also uses that form to express a relative reading.

By proportional reading, we mean the kind of interpretation that most has in a sentence like Gloria has visited most of the continents. This sentence means approximately that Gloria has visited more than half of the continents.

By relative reading, we mean the kind of interpretation that (the) most has in Gloria has visited the most continents. This sentence implies that Gloria has visited more continents than anyone else in the relevant comparison class. It could be true even if Gloria has visited fewer than half of the continents.

Usually, the superlative of much or many has only a relative reading. Most languages do not use the superlative of much or many to express a proportional reading, in contrast to English. And apparently, no language uses it for a proportional, but not a relative reading.

The universal means that the relative reading is typologically unmarked, and the proportional reading is typologically marked. Languages like English, in which the superlative of many is used to express a proportional reading, are therefore weird.

In fact, we have evidence for an even stronger claim:

If a language has a superlative of much or many, then it is used to express a relative reading.

So relative readings for the superlative of much or many are not only unmarked, they are universal.

We define ‘superlative’ broadly, allowing for a wide range of different kinds of morphosyntactic strategies for expressing a superlative meaning. These include:

  • using a special superlative morpheme like English -est (the morphological strategy)
  • using a special superlative word like English most (the periphrastic strategy)
  • combining a definiteness marker with a comparative construction, as in French la plus belle ‘the more beautiful’
  • no formal distinction between comparative and superlative, as in Irish
  • using a comparative with a universal standard, as in Russian vyš-e vse-x ‘tall-er all-of
  • using a comparative with an existential standard, as in Khmer klang ciang kee: ‘strong exceed someone‘.
  • other strategies, such as  in Vietnamese where the superlative is reportedly indicated aspectually

In some languages, the closest thing to a superlative is an intensifier construction like very tall. Since this does not convey a superlative meaning (two people can both be very tall, but only one can be tallest), we don’t count this as a superlative construction. But otherwise we are very inclusive.

This result was published in our LSA proceedings paper. We are currently working on studying results from individual languages carefully to zero in on exactly why this universal holds.

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