Most and more: Quantity superlatives across languages


Background

If Gloria has visited three of the seven continents in the world, and her friends have only visited two, then Gloria has visited the most continents, but it would be problematic to say that she has visited most continents.

In Swedish, it’s the opposite: English the most corresponds to Swedish flest (no definite article) and Swedish de flesta (with definite article) corresponds to English most. In German, both meanings are expressed using a definite article (die meisten), and in Icelandic as well as the endangered Dalecarlian varieties spoken in western Sweden, both readings are expressed using an indefinite form.

This kind of variability is not limited to Germanic languages: Where French uses le plus de, Italian uses bare piu. Thus even among closely related languages, the superlative forms of quantity words (many – more – most) exhibit a great deal of variability.

Our project, generously funded by the Swedish Research Council, aims to contextualize this variation within a larger typological perspective. The semantics of superlatives, especially quantity superlatives, is typically not covered in descriptive grammars at this level of detail, so the project has a non-trivial documentation component, aimed at addressing the question of what the range and limits of this variation are. Ultimately, this work will shed on why this area of grammar is so particularly volatile, and what forces lie at this interface between gradability and quantification.


Findings

An interactive map summarizing some of our findings, with links to our raw data, can be found here:

Map of quantity superlatives around the world
Typological database of quantity superlatives

Despite all of the variability in this realm of grammar, we have already found evidence for a number of semantic universals.

See the links to the right or Elizabeth Coppock’s personal publications page for an updated list of publications.


Would you be willing to participate?

If you are a speaker of a minority language and would be willing to help us by participating in the project, please contact ecoppock@bu.edu. It takes about half an hour to fill out the survey, and if you are willing to be interviewed for follow-up questions, we pay at a rate comparable to expert translation services. We have several versions of the survey, available in:

Note: We will never share your name or any other personal information with anyone without your explicit permission. The translations we collect will be made public only in an anonymized form for scientific and educational purposes.