Publication details [#67232]

Erbaugh, Mary S. 2019. How the Chinese language encourages the paradigm shift toward discourse in linguistics. Pressure from ‘the three zeros’. Chinese Language and Discourse 10 (1) : 84–112.
Publication type
Article in journal
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Place, Publisher
John Benjamins
Journal DOI


The Chinese language has encouraged the paradigm shift in linguistics away from Chomsky-style sentence-internal rules toward usage-based discourse. Analysts have debated two possibilities: is Chinese an allegedly ‘inferior’ and ambiguous language because it rests on the ‘three zeros’: zero subjects, zero anaphora, and zero tense? Or does Chinese use ‘hidden complexity’ (Bisang 2009) to make reference clear by discourse marking? Chinese pressure points on linguistic theory center on these ‘three zeros’. Zero subjects have influenced a broader research category of topic-centered languages. Zero anaphora influenced reference tracking beyond the sentence. Zero tense expanded understanding of time and aspect. The process of the shift comes from international networks of multilingual scholars of Chinese. They have collaborated to form a critical mass of explicitly comparative, empirical research. Chinese interdisciplinary research has been especially influential in typology, child language, cross-cultural communications, translation and artificial intelligence. Fifty years ago, mainstream conferences, textbooks, books, and journals almost never featured Chinese. Now they routinely do.