This study deals with the historical development of Mandarin minimizers through examining their synchronic distribution. The main source of Mandarin minimizers, a distinct class of negative polarity items (NPIs), is ‘one’-phrases which are composed of the numeral ‘one’, a unit word, and a noun. The development of ‘one’-phrases as minimizers from Old Chinese, Middle Chinese, Early Mandarin, to Modern Mandarin makes strong links among important linguistic issues such as NPI licensing, word order, numeral-classifier phrases, and focus constructions.
The diachronic development of the ‘one’-phrases as minimizers is analyzed from a constructional approach. The present study shows that the unit of these diachronic changes is the whole ‘one’-phrase construction instead of merely the lexical items. This constructional approach reflects both compositionality and non-compositionality of Mandarin ‘one’-phrases as minimizers at different stages of development. Each component of the ‘one’-phrases contributes its semantics to the whole construction, while the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic relations among the three elements have changed over time. The various functions of the ‘one’-phrases, including as a numeral phrase, a modifier phrase, and a referential phrase, are the result of ‘one’-phrases being associated with extant constructions in Mandarin Chinese, forming a constructional network. The hierarchical network accounts for how ‘one’-phrases have developed their polysemous model.
Results of corpus/text analyses show that, in general, Mandarin minimizers have gradually developed the tendency of appearing in a preverbal object position. However, when Mandarin existential construction is involved, they tend to stay in the postverbal position. I argue that the distribution of minimizers has been shaped by the information structure of VO and OV word orders. The skewed distribution of minimizers in different construals reflects how focus is structured in Mandarin. The Mandarin OV construction has an obligatory preverbal object focus, while the existential construction profiles the postverbal object. When ‘one’-phrases under negation appear in the OV construction, they must be interpreted as minimizers. This combination guarantees a scalar reading, which provides the environment for the additive particle 也 yě and the exhaustive operator 都 dōu to develop their scalar interpretation. It also accounts for why minimizers in the Modern Mandarin OV construction require the accompanying scalar particles.
The requirement of focus-sensitive scalar particles for ‘one’-phrases as minimizers is also observed in other numeral classifier languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Malay. A typological comparison of these languages shows that focus is a crucial condition for licensing ‘one’-phrases as minimizers. Moreover, the ordering of the components of ‘one’-phrases combined with the position of the focus-sensitive particles results in different scopes of focus-imposed minimizers. The difference in scope determines how scalar inferences of the minimizer in question are structured. The inferences from minimizers can be construed by either a type or a quantity contrast. This analysis shows that the scalar particles associated with minimizers in these languages come from the same source, an additive particle, which is associated with alternatives for scalar inferences.
To summarize, the constructional account employed in this study provides a quantitative treatment of how language change originates in language use with particular attention paid to numeral phrases, word order, focus, and negation. The development of ‘one’-phrases as minimizers exemplifies the incremental process of diachronic changes within a construction network. The analysis of ‘one’-phrases as minimizers provides an answer to why they are crosslinguistically recognized as strong NPIs by integrating focal construals, referentiality of numeral phrases, and scalarity.