Possible interpretations for suffix 'men' in Mandarin Chinese
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The identity of the suffix men in Mandarin Chinese has long been debated but is still controversial. Chinese grammars usually introduce it as a plural marker and/or a collectivity marker without distinguishing the two. The issue was not addressed until Iljic (1994) and Li (1999) offered a unified analysis for men as a pure collectivity marker and a pure plural marker respectively. However, their argumentation is not flawless or very convincing. What’s more, linguists working on men are prone to give it other interpretations, one of which is definiteness. Such an interpretation is beyond the realm of number morphology, yet there is no systematic or satisfactory account for it. Looking into languages with optional plural marking, I find that those plural markers often play more than one role. Not only they are claimed to be definite markers, but they could also be specificity marker, collectivity marker and maybe are more comparible with a large/imprecise number quantifier. In addition, men shares some other features with these optional markers; they usually attach to common human nouns and proper names, they cannot co-occur with number (+ CL), etc. These similarities motivate me to do a typological study among languages with optional plural marking and compare men with other plural markers. In the paper I selected Japanese, Indonesian and Papiamentu and analyzed some alleged interpretations for their optional plural markers/marking morphemes. For each of the arguments I tried to apply it to men in Mandarin. I also conducted some corpus study, web search and a survey to gain enough empirical data supporting my intuitions and findings. The results show that although men seems to have some optional interpretations other than a plural marker, none of them is significantly strong enough or can be theoretically accounted for. The definite reading of most men-plurals is not brought about by men but possibly by the topic status of the nominal or by the nature of a human noun to which men attaches. Men can co-occur with expressions indicating distributivity such as yi ge jie yi ge ‘one by one’ and ge ‘each’, implying that it is not inherently collective. Native speakers sometimes are more tolerant towards men with a larger/ imprecise number, but the difference is not significantly large. And there is evidence arguing against a specificity analysis for men-plurals. With all these data and argumentation, I conclude eventually that men in Mandarin Chinese is no more than a plural marker.