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Lability of Verbs and the Change-of-State Construction in Chinese.

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Title:Lability of Verbs and the Change-of-State Construction in Chinese.
Authors:Zhang, Liulin
Contributors:East Asian Lang & Lit-Chinese (department)
Change of state
Cognitive linguistics
Date Issued:Aug 2017
Publisher:University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Abstract:It has often been noted that some Chinese verbs can be used transitively or intransitively,
and that the syntactically privileged argument (subject) in these different uses has different
semantic roles. Many terms have been introduced to describe this phenomenon, among which
verb lability appears to be the most felicitous one, given its transparency and
straightforwardness: it does not pertain to notions absent in Chinese, nor does it encode any
information about the function of the transitive/intransitive construction pair, which has been
highly contentious in previous studies.
Set within the framework of cognitive linguistics and construction grammar, this
dissertation proceeds from the assumption that language is usage-based instead of rule-generated.
Accordingly, it employs a diachronic corpus-based approach. Meanwhile, to adapt to the special
feature of Chinese, i.e., the rich varieties of Chinese are connected by characters, this
dissertation’s diachronic analysis of lexical semantics is based on Chinese characters.
Corpus data from the pre-Qin period (Old Chinese), the Tang dynasty (Middle Chinese),
and the Ming dynasty (Early Mandarin) show that the ‘theme + labile verb’ construction is
extraordinarily ancient and stable in Chinese, and that historically, labile verbs prototypically
denote changes of state. An extensive study of verbal semantics in Modern Mandarin reveals two
semantic factors determining verb lability: change of state and spontaneity. While change of state
is the prototypical function of labile verbs and the construction pairs formed by them, the
contingency between labile verbs and their transitive/intransitive use is sensitive to the likelihood
of spontaneous occurrence of the event being described. This finding holds in a cross-linguistic
context, reflecting general characteristics of human conceptualization. The complex event
structure represented by a change-of-state event gives way to two competing strategies for
profiling in human construal – agent orientation and theme orientation – which respectively lead
to the transitive use and intransitive use of a verbal. However, as an isolating language in which
causative/anticausative is not marked, Chinese exhibits an overwhelmingly large group of labile
verbs in comparison with other languages.
The intransitive change-of-state construction (CSC) formed by labile verbs has
traditionally been referred to as the notional passive construction, and distinguished from the socalled
Chinese passive construction marked by 么bei. After investigating the process of
grammaticalization of the character 么, it is found that 么 derived an ‘affected’ sense in
construal from its lability (denoting ‘cover/receive’), and thus the 么bei construction (BEIC)
can be roughly represented as ‘affectee +么+ event’. In contrast to CSC, BEIC predominantly
takes animate subjects as affectees, and the events that affect them are not limited to change-ofstate
In Chinese, the overall frequency of CSC is much higher than that of BEIC, but this
prevalence is not commented upon or otherwise reflected in Chinese textbooks. Moreover,
previous studies have reported contradictory findings about learners’ acquisition of CSC and
BEIC. Taking a usage-based approach to language acquisition, The present research includes two
experiments involving picture-description tasks. The results indicate that Chinese learners use
more BEICs and fewer CSCs than native speakers do. Additionally, due to the difference in
markedness, CSC is much more difficult to notice during incidental exposure than BEIC is,
rendering explicit instruction necessary. It needs to be noted that such explicit instruction merely
functions to counteract the attentional bias, and is not necessarily about the selectional
constrainsts between these two constructions, which are inherent in learners’ cognition.
Description:Ph.D. Thesis. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 2017.
Rights:All UHM dissertations and theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from this source for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without written permission from the copyright owner.
Appears in Collections: Ph.D. - East Asian Languages and Literatures (Chinese)

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