by Leon Stassen
In semantic or cognitive terms, comparison can be defined as a mental act by which two objects are assigned a position on a predicative scale. If the positions on the scale are different, then we speak of the comparison of inequality, which finds its linguistic encoding in comparative constructions. Such a construction essentially involves three things: a predicative scale, which, in language, is usually encoded as a gradable predicate, and two objects. Although these objects can, in principle, be complex, the practice of typological linguistic research has been to restrict them to primary objects, which are typically encoded in the form of noun phrases. Thus, a comparative construction typically contains a predicate and two noun phrases, one of which is the object of comparison (the comparee NP), while the other functions as the "yard-stick" of the comparison (the standard NP). In short, prototypical instances of comparative constructions in the languages of the world are sentences that are similar to the English sentence in (1), in which the noun phrase following the item than is the standard NP:
John is taller than Lucy.
Modern literature on the typology of the comparison of inequality includes Ultan 1972, Andersen 1983 and Stassen 1984, 1985. The last of these authors presents a typology of comparative constructions which boils down to four major types. A basic parameter in this typology is the encoding of the standard NP. First, one can make a distinction between instances of fixed-case comparatives and derived-case comparatives. In the former type, the standard NP is always in the same case, regardless of the case of the comparee NP. In the latter type, the standard NP derives its case assignment from the case of the comparee NP. Classical Latin is an example of a language in which both types are allowed. The sentences in (2) illustrate a construction type in which the standard NP is dependent on the comparee NP for its case marking: it can either be in the nominative case (tu) or in the accusative case (te). In contrast, sentence (3) shows a construction type in which the standard NP is invariably in the ablative case (te). As a result, sentence (3) is ambiguous between the readings of (2a) and (2b).
(2) Classical Latin (Kühner and Stegmann 1955: 466)
‘I love Brutus no less than you (love Brutus).’
‘I love Brutus no less than (I love) you.’
(3) Classical Latin (Kühner and Stegmann 1955: 466)
Both types of comparative constructions can be subcategorized further, on the basis of additional parameters. Within the fixed-case comparatives, a first distinction is that between Exceed Comparatives and Locational Comparatives. Exceed Comparatives have as their characteristic that the standard NP is constructed as the direct object of a transitive verb with the meaning ‘to exceed’ or ‘to surpass’. Thus, the construction typically includes two predicates, one which is the comparative predicate, and another which is the ‘exceed’-verb. The comparee NP is the subject of the ‘exceed’-verb. Duala (Bantu; Cameroon), presents an instance of the Exceed Comparative, as does Thai.
‘This house is bigger than that.’
‘He is taller than anyone.’
Locational Comparatives, on the other hand, are characterized by the fact that the standard NP is invariably constructed in a case form which also has a locational/adverbial function. Depending on the exact nature of this function, Locational Comparatives can be divided into three further subtypes. From-comparatives mark the standard NP as the source of a movement, with a marker meaning ‘from’ or ‘out of’. To-comparatives construct the standard NP as the goal of a movement (‘to, towards’, ‘over, beyond’) or as a benefactive (‘for’). Finally, At-comparatives encode the standard NP as a location, in which an object is at rest (‘in’, ‘on’, ‘at’, ‘upon’). Illustrations of the various subtypes of Locational Comparatives are from Mundari (Munda; India), Uzbek (Turkic; Uzbekistan), and Estonian for from-comparatives; Siuslaw (Siuslawan; Oregon) and Maasai (Nilotic; Kenya and Tanzania) for to-comparatives; and Ahaggar Tuareg (Berber; southern Algeria) and Tubu (Nilo-Saharan; Chad and Niger) for at-comparatives. For the purposes of the map, however, this internal variation within the Locational Comparative has been ignored.
‘The elephant is bigger than the horse.’
‘My father is younger than that man.’
‘The spring is more beautiful than the fall.’
‘He is better than me’
‘The hartebeest is bigger than the waterbuck.’
‘You are prettier than your sister.’
‘His eye is redder than blood.’
Turning now to the derived-case comparatives, in which the case marking of the standard NP is derived from — or “parasitic on” — the case marking of the comparee NP, we note that, once again, two subtypes can be distinguished. First, there is the Conjoined Comparative. Here the comparative construction usually consists of two structurally independent clauses, one of which contains the comparee NP, while the other contains the standard NP. Furthermore, the two clauses show a structural parallellism, in that the grammatical function of the comparee NP in one of the clauses is duplicated by the grammatical function of the standard NP in the other clause. If, for example, the comparee functions as the grammatical subject in its clause, the standard NP will also have subject status in its clause.
Since the construction has two clauses, it follows that the construction will also have two independent predicates. In other words, the comparative predicate is expressed twice. There are two ways in which this double expression may be effectuated. The language may employ antonymous predicates in the two clauses (‘good-bad’, ‘strong-weak’). Alternatively, the two predicates may show a positive-negative polarity (‘good-not good’, ‘strong-not strong’). An example of the first variant is found in Amele (Madang; north-eastern Papua New Guinea); the second variant has been attested for Menomini (Algonquian ; Wisconsin). Sentence (15) illustrates one of the comparative constructions in Malay. Here the standard-NP and the comparee-NP are conjoined as sentence topics, and the following clause predicates the property of the comparee-NP only; that is, in this (rather infrequent) variant of the Conjoined Comparative the comparative predicate is expressed only once. For the purposes of the map, all variants of the Conjoined Comparative are treated as a single category.
‘This house is bigger than that house.’
‘He is stronger than me.’
‘Stone is heavier than wood.’
A second subtype of derived-case comparison is defined negatively, in that the standard NP has derived case, but the construction does not have the form of a coordination of clauses. Instead, the construction features a specific comparative particle which accompanies the standard NP. The English than-comparative is an instance of this Particle Comparative. Other examples are the comparative construction in French, with its comparative particle que, and the comparative construction in Hungarian, which features the particle mint ‘than, like’.
(16) French (Bernard Bichakjian, p.c.)
‘You are prettier than your sister.’
(17) Hungarian (Edith Moravcsik, p.c.)
‘István is taller than Peter.’
In summary, the map of comparative constructions shows the areal distribution of four types. Two of these types (viz. The Locational Comparative and the Exceed Comparative) are instances of fixed-case comparison, while the other two (viz. the Conjoined Comparative and the Particle Comparative) are instances of derived-case comparison. As a result, the following four values are shown on the map:
Apart from, or in addition to, case assignment of the standard NP, a further possible parameter in the typology of comparative constructions might be considered to be the presence or absence of comparative marking on the predicate. In the vast majority of languages, such overt marking is absent; predicative adjectives in comparatives retain their unmarked, “positive”, form. Some languages, however, mark a predicative adjective in a comparative construction by means of a special affix (e.g., -er in English, German and Dutch, -ior in Latin, -bb in Hungarian, -ago in Basque) or a special adverb (more in English, plus in French). Especially in the case of comparative affixes, the etymological origin is largely unknown. As for the areal distribution of predicate marking in comparatives, it is an almost exclusively European phenomenon, and is particularly frequent in languages that have a particle comparative construction. For a tentative explanation of this latter correlation see Stassen (1985: ch. 15). In the map the phenomenon of comparative predicate marking has not been taken into account.
As the map demonstrates, the areal distribution of the various types of comparative constructions is striking (see also Heine 1994). For one thing, the Exceed Comparative appears to be almost exclusively restricted to two areas, viz. sub-Saharan Africa, and China and Southeast Asia. No less limited is the distribution of the Particle Comparative, which turns out to have its base in the modern languages of Europe; instances of this type outside Europe (such as the Uto-Aztecan languages in North and Central America) may well be cases of influence from English and/or Spanish. The Conjoined Comparative has a stronghold in Australia and New Guinea, and is also prominent in the Amazon basin. Finally, the Locational Comparative is the rule in northern Africa and in the vast landmass of Eurasia (including the Middle East and India, but excluding Europe), and can also be found in Eskimo languages and scattered instances of languages over the Americas, in Polynesia, and in Australia and Papua New Guinea.