Superlatives and the Grammaticalization of Czech ten

Susan C. Kresin, University of California, Los Angeles

Having a wide range of functions that overlap with both demonstratives and definite articles, the Czech demonstrative modifier ten is often compared to a definite article. Particularly in superlative modification, little or nothing appears to remain of its original demonstrative meaning.

(1) … má máma někdy trojčila, jako by na celým světě chodila do rachoty akorát ona sama a ostatní se flákali a leželi držkou na sluníčku. Jo, začala být taková, že měla tu nejtěžší dřínu, tu největší otročinu za nejmíň prachů.

(‘My mother sometimes carried on about how only she in the whole world had to go to work, and everyone else just bummed around and lay in the sun. She started to act as if she had the heaviest load, the greatest slave–work for the least amount of money.’ [Václav Dušek, Tuláci])

In this example ten lacks any kind of deictic meaning, a basic semantic feature of demonstratives. Furthermore, since the noun phrase modified by ten is attributive, rather than referential, the core demonstrative function of matching the modified noun phrase to an identifiable referent (Hawkins 1978) is annulled. Zubatý (1917: 292) writes of similar examples that ten fills an emphatic function, implying a belief on the part of the speaker that the superlative statement has a more universal validity than the specific discourse context.

This function of highlighting the modified noun phrase is typical of all uses of ten, both in its core demonstrative functions and in the various extensions in which it operates more like a definite article. Turning from the semantics of ten to pragmatics, ten can be characterized as having a uniform and consistent function of focusing the addressee’s attention on the modified noun phrase, regardless of whether or not a specific referent is identifiable. A simple set of pragmatic inferences, reanalyses and extensions, to be discussed in the paper, leads from the more concrete, “demonstrative” function of indicating identifiability to this relatively abstract function. In turn, various inferences can derive from this general pragmatic function, depending on the specific context and the individual speaker’s intentions and goals. This type of pragmatic enrichment, accompanied by semantic bleaching, is typical of early phases of grammaticalization (Hopper and Traugott 1993).

The next question, then, is, how far can ten be said to have grammaticalized? Is it at all reasonable to consider it a definite article? The most cogent argument against this potential reclassification has traditionally been based on the alleged fact that there are no grammatical contexts in which the use of ten is automatically predetermined. Instead, its use is conditioned by the needs of a particular discourse, as interpreted by the individual speaker. While this is true of most of the contexts in which ten is used, on closer examination of the issue one finds that, in fact, there do exist certain syntactic constructs that require the use of ten. Consider the following pair of examples, with the superlative adjective nejdůležitější “most important”. In (2a), the omission of ten is uniformly rejected by native speakers; in (2b), ten is possible but not obligatory.

(2a) To je to nejdůležitější./*To je nejdůležitější.

(‘That’s the most important.’)

(2b) To je ta nejdůležitější věc./To je nejdůležitější věc.

(‘That’s the most important thing.’)

This minimal pair indicates that in the syntactic construct to je X, in which X is a superlative adjective, ten functions as an obligatory device of nominalization. In other words, the use of ten is grammatically determined by the mere existence of this syntactic construct—an indication of its full grammaticalization in this particular context. This pair of examples and variants will be discussed in greater detail, as illustration of the extreme end of a cline toward grammaticalization. As part of this discussion, it will be shown that it is a combination of the semantic meaning of superlatives and the pragmatics of their typical usage that enables them to lead the path toward a state of full grammaticalization.

Selected References

Hawkins, John (1978) Definiteness and Indefiniteness: A Study in Reference and Grammaticality Prediction. London: Croom Helm.

Hopper, Paul J. and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (1993) Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zubatý, Josef (1917) “Ten.” Naše řeč 1: 289–294.