Chapter published in:The ‘Noun Phrase’ across Languages: An emergent unit in interaction
Edited by Tsuyoshi Ono and Sandra A. Thompson
[Typological Studies in Language 128] 2020
► pp. 238–269
The pragmatics of ‘light nouns’ in Besemah
Perhaps the most widely discussed aspect of the NP in western Austronesian languages is the relative clause, which is described in terms of its syntactic relation to the noun it modifies. It is expressed by a ‘relativizer’ and a so-called ‘gap’ in the modifying clause that is co-referential with the head noun. One western Austronesian language that appears to be quite different in this regard is Besemah, a little-described Malayic language of southwest Sumatra. This is because constructions analogous to relative clauses in Besemah are best described as Noun Modifying Constructions (NMC) following studies of similar phenomena in other languages, most notably Japanese. Like Japanese, Besemah NMCs most often occur with a so-called ‘light’ head noun, which has a general, abstract meaning, such as ‘thing’, ‘situation’, etc. This paper shows that NMCs headed by a closed class of light nouns serve a number interactional functions, including formulating reference to discourse entities that are recognizable to participants, elaborating upon discourse entities in increments, jointly working out the identity of a referent in other-initiations of repair, and constructing story beginnings with unattached light nouns among others. I argue that the semantically-bleached nature of light nouns and the ‘loose’ (pragmatically-determined) relationship between the light head noun and modifying elements allow speakers to construct NMCs that fit local contexts and serve various interactional purposes.
Published online: 15 July 2020
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