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3.2.Modification of absolute adjectives

This section discusses modification of absolute (non-scalar) adjectives, subsection I will start with briefly discussing some differences between scalar and absolute adjectives, subsections II and III will be devoted to the two different types of modifiers that can be distinguished, which will be referred to as approximative and absolute modifiers.

[+]  I.  Differences between scalar and absolute adjectives

Section 3.1 has discussed modification of the scalar adjectives. The modifier is typically an amplifier such as zeer'very' or a downtoner such as vrij'rather', which scale upwards or downwards from some tacitly assumed standard value or norm. In order to illustrate this, we repeat the schematic representation in (7) for the adjectives goed'good' and slecht'bad/evil' as (258).

Example 258
Scale of “goodness":

The representation in (258) will make clear that the implications in (259) are valid; the adjective in (259a) is preceded by the amplifier zeer, and we may conclude from the fact that zeer A holds that A also holds; the adjective in (259b) is preceded by the downtoner vrij, and we may conclude from the fact that vrij A holds that A holds as well.

Example 259
Logical implications zeer/ vrij + scalar adjective
a. Dat boek is zeer goed/slecht.
  that book is very good/bad
a'. Dat boek is goed/slecht.
  that book is good/bad
b. Dat boek is vrij goed/slecht.
  that book is rather good/bad
b'. Dat boek is goed/slecht.
  that book is good/bad

      The implications are different when the adjectives are absolute. Take as an example the polar adjectives leeg'empty' and vol'full', which seem to refer to the boundaries of the scale in (260). The use of the modifiers vrij and zeer with these adjectives implies that we are referring to some point between the two boundaries.

Example 260
Scale of “fullness"

The representation in (260) shows that, in the case of an absolute adjective, we cannot conclude from the fact that if zeer/vrij A holds that A holds as well; in fact, we have to conclude that A does not hold.

Example 261
Logical implications zeer/ vrij + absolute adjective
a. De fles is zeer leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is very empty/full
a'. De fles is niet leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is not  empty/full
b. De fles is vrij leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is rather  empty/full
b'. De fles is niet leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is not  empty/full

Of course, the discussion above is an idealization of reality, as the adjective vol'full' can sometimes also be used as a scalar adjective. In everyday practice vol is generally not used in the sense of “100% filled". A cup of coffee is called vol even if it is not filled up to the rim (actually, if it were it would be too full). On this interpretation of vol, we can conclude from the fact that zeer vol is applicable that vol is applicable as well. For the sake of argument, however, we have assumed vol to mean “100% filled" in the example above.
      The fact that the logical implications in (259) do not hold for absolute adjectives implies that semantic representations like those in (8) in Section 3.1.2, repeated here as (262), cannot be used to express the meaning contribution of the modifiers of absolute adjectives.

Example 262
a. Jan is zeer goed.
  Jan is very good
a'. ∃d [ GOED (Jan,d) & d > dn]
b. Jan is vrij goed.
  Jan is rather good
b'. ∃d [ GOED (Jan,d) & d < dn]
c. Jan is min of meer goed.
  Jan is more or less good
c'. ∃d [ GOED (Jan,d) & d ≈ dn]

This shows that modifiers of absolute adjectives do not refer to some degree on an implied scale, which is also supported by the fact that they can also be used with, e.g., geometrical adjectives, which do not involve scales at all. Just as vrij/zeer leeg in (261) implies that the bottle is not empty, vrij/zeer rond'rather/very round' in (263a) implies that the logical subject of the AP is not round; Janʼs face merely shows some resemblance to a round shape. This intuition can be represented as in (263b) by assuming that the modified APs denote certain mutually exclusive partitions of some larger set of entities. In order to avoid confusion, note that the circles in (263b) indicate sets, and do not represent the geometrical forms.

Example 263
a. Jans gezicht is vrij/zeer rond.
  Janʼs face  is rather/very  round
a'. Jans gezicht is niet rond.
  Janʼs face  is not  round

Something similar holds for color adjectives such as rood'red'. When the leaves of the trees change colors in autumn, we may use the expressions in (264a), thereby indicating that some of the leaves have already changed colors, or that the leaves have partly changed colors. Similarly, we may use (264b) to indicate that Janʼs face is partly red.

Example 264
a. De bladeren zijn al vrij/zeer rood.
  the leaves  are already  rather/very  red
b. Jans gezicht is vrij/zeer rood.
  Janʼs face  is rather/very  red

      The examples in (261) to (264) have in common that the modifiers indicate that the subject of adjective A cannot be (fully) characterized as having the property denoted by A; it merely has some property that resembles it. The absolute adjectives can, however, also be preceded by a modifier that indicates that the property does hold in full. Some examples with the modifier helemaal'completely' are given in (265).

Example 265
a. De fles is helemaal leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is completely  empty/full
a'. De fles is leeg/vol.
  the bottle  is empty/full
b. De tafel is helemaal rond.
  the table is fully  round
b'. De tafel is rond.
  the table  is round
c. De bladeren zijn helemaal rood
  the leaves  are  completely red 
c'. De bladeren zijn rood.
  the leaves  are red

From now on, we will call the modifiers with the properties of those in (261), (263) and (264) approximative, and their counterparts in (265) absolute. We will discuss these approximative and absolute modifiers in Subsections II and III.

[+]  II.  Approximative modifiers

Many approximative modifiers indicate that the property denoted by the adjective is almost or nearly applicable. Some examples involving adverbs are given in (266).

Example 266
a. een bijna perfect artikel
  an  almost  perfect article
b. een nagenoeg onmogelijke taak
  an  almost  impossible  task
c. een praktisch dode hond
  a virtually dead dog
d. een vrijwel dove man
  a nearly deaf man

Occasionally, more complex phrases like zo goed als'as good as' in (267a) are used; the expression op sterven na dood in (267b) is idiomatic.

Example 267
a. Opa is zo goed als blind.
  grandpa  is as good as  blind
  'Grandpa is practically blind.'
b. De hond is op sterven na dood.
  the dog  is OP  die  NA  dead
  'The dog is on the verge of death.'

      The examples in (268) show that approximatives normally cannot be used with scalar adjectives. The only exceptions are modifiers like vrij'rather' and zeer'very', which can be used both as an intensifier and as an approximative modifier; see Subsection I for examples.

Example 268
a. * een bijna interessant artikel
  an  almost  interesting  article
b. * een nagenoeg moeilijke taak
  an  almost  difficult  task
c. * een praktisch lieve hond
  virtually  friendly  dog
d. * een vrijwel slechthorende man
  nearly  hard-of-hearing  man

Possible exceptions to this general rule are given in (269). In these examples, the approximative modifier bijna'nearly' indicates that the gradable adjective is almost applicable. These examples are, however, hard to judge, as bijna can also be used as a clausal adverb. This is clear from the fact that topicalization of the adjective in isolation (also) seems possible.

Example 269
a. Dit gedrag is bijna kinderlijk.
  this behavior  is  almost  childlike
a'. <Bijna> kinderlijk is dit gedrag <?bijna>.
b. Jan was bijna boos.
  Jan was almost  angry
b'. <??Bijna> boos was Jan <bijna>.

For completeness’ sake, note that goed'good', which has been given above as a scalar adjective, can also be used as an absolute adjective, in which case it means “correct" and stands in opposition to the adjective fout'wrong'. Example (270) is therefore not a counterexample to the claim that approximatives cannot be combined with scalar adjectives; the fact that goed can here only be interpreted as “correct" in fact supports it.

Example 270
Je antwoord is bijna goed.
  your answer  is almost  correct

      The approximatives in (266) indicate that the adjective is nearly applicable. With those in (271) the implied “distance" is larger, but remains relatively vague. This vagueness does not arise with the modifiers in (272), which indicate quite precisely what the “distance" is.

Example 271
a. De fles is zoʼn beetje leeg.
  the bottle  is more or less  empty
b. De fles is min of meer leeg.
  the bottle  is more or less  empty
Example 272
a. De fles is half leeg.
  the bottle  is half empty
b. De fles is voor driekwart leeg.
  the bottle  is for three.quarters  empty
  'The bottle is three- quarters empty.'

      Occasionally, approximatives can themselves be modified by an adverb like al'already' or nog'still'. These adverbs indicate that the entity modified by the approximative is changing: al indicates that it is coming “closer" to the property denoted by the adjective whereas nog indicates that it is moving in the other direction. While drinking wine, one may utter (273a) or (273b), but not (273a') or (273b'), as we are in the process of emptying bottles. When one is bottling wine, on the other hand, only the primed examples are appropriate.

Example 273
a. Deze fles is nog vrijwel/half vol.
  this bottle  is still  nearly/half  full
a'. Deze fles is al vrijwel/half vol.
  this bottle  is already  nearly/half  full
b. Deze fles is al bijna/half leeg.
  this bottle  is already  nearly/half  empty
b'. Deze fles is nog bijna/half leeg.
  this bottle  is still  nearly/half  empty

      Approximative modifiers normally cannot occur in negative clauses: examples such as (274) are only acceptable if used to cancel some assumption held by or attributed to the addressee. In this respect, the approximatives differ sharply from the absolute modifiers; cf. example (279).

Example 274
a. Deze fles is niet vrijwel vol/leeg.
  this bottle  is not  nearly  full/empty
b. Deze fles is niet bijna vol/leeg.
  this bottle  is not  nearly  full/empty
c. Deze fles is niet half vol/leeg.
  this bottle  is not  half  full/empty

      The examples in (275) deserve special mention. In (275a), the approximative modifier vrijwel modifies the negative adverb niet, which in turn modifies the scalar antonym versneden'diluted' of the absolute adjective puur/onversneden'neat/undiluted'. It feels as if the combination niet versneden behaves as a complex absolute adjective on a par with puur/onversneden. In (275b), the modifier nauwelijks'hardly' is inherently negative, and seems to act as a kind of approximative: nauwelijks versneden is more or less synonymous with vrijwel puur'almost neat'. Examples (275c&d) show that the modifier nauwelijks can be combined neither with an absolute adjective like puur'neat', nor with a scalar adjective like lekker'tasty' that does not have an absolute antonym.

Example 275
a. De wijn bleek vrijwel niet versneden.
  the wine  turned.out  almost  not  diluted
b. De wijn bleek nauwelijks versneden.
  the wine  turned.out  hardly  diluted
c. * De wijn bleek nauwelijks puur/onversneden.
  the wine  turned.out  hardly  neat/undiluted
d. * De wijn bleek nauwelijks lekker.
  the wine  turned.out  hardly tasty

      Finally, it should be observed that approximative modifiers cannot be combined with inherently amplified absolute adjectives, such as eivol/bomvol'crammed-full' and kurkdroog'bone-dry', in which the first morpheme emphasizes the fact that the property denoted by the adjective holds in full. This is illustrated in (276); see also the discussion of example (36) in Section 3.1.2, sub IE, and example (280) in Subsection III below.

Example 276
a. *? een vrijwel bomvolle zaal
  an  almost  crammed-full  hall
b. *? een nagenoeg kurkdroge doek
  virtually  bone.dry  cloth
[+]  III.  Absolute modifiers

Absolute modifiers indicate that the property denoted by the adjective applies in full. Some examples are given in the primeless examples of (277). The primed examples show that, just like approximatives, absolute modifiers cannot modify scalar adjectives.

Example 277
a. een geheel volle zaal
  completely  full  hall
a'. * een geheel grote zaal
   a  completely  beautiful  hall
b. een helemaal lege fles
  completely  empty  bottle
b'. * een helemaal mooie fles
   a  completely  beautiful  bottle
c. een totaal overbodig boek
  totally  superfluous  book
c'. *? een totaal saai boek
   a  totally  boring  book
d. een volkomen ronde tafel
  perfectly  round  table
d'. *? een volkomen gezellige tafel
   a  perfectly  cozy  table
e. een volledig droge doek
  totally  dry  cloth
e'. *? een volledig zachte doek
   a  totally  soft  cloth

      Like the approximatives, absolute modifiers can be modified by adverbs like al'already' and nog'still'; al indicates that the logical subject of the modified AP has completed a process of change, as a result of which the adjective has become applicable; nog indicates that a process of change is expected to take place but has not yet started, as a result of which the adjective is still applicable. While drinking wine, one may utter the primeless, but not the primed, examples in (278), as we are in the process of emptying bottles. When one is bottling wine, on the other hand, only the primed examples are appropriate.

Example 278
a. Deze fles is nog helemaal vol.
  this bottle  is still  completely  full
a'. Deze fles is al helemaal vol.
  this bottle  is already  completely  full
b. Deze fles is al helemaal leeg.
  this bottle  is already  completely  empty
b'. Deze fles is nog helemaal leeg.
  this bottle  is still  completely  empty

Unlike the approximative modifiers, absolute modifiers are possible in negative clauses; cf. example (274). Observe that if the element meer is added, as in (279b), it is implied that the property denoted by the adjective was applicable some time before. In this respect, niet ... meer acts as the antonym of al in (278).

Example 279
a. Deze fles is niet helemaal vol/leeg.
  this bottle  is not  completely  full/empty
b. Deze fles is niet helemaal vol meer.
  this bottle  is not completely  full  anymore
  'This bottle isnʼt full anymore.'

      The examples in (280) show that, like approximative modifiers, absolute modifiers cannot be used with inherently amplified absolute adjectives like eivol/bomvol'crammed-full' and kurkdroog'bone-dry'. This is due to the fact that the first morpheme already indicates that the property denoted by the adjective holds in full.

Example 280
a. *? een helemaal bomvolle zaal
  completely  crammed-full  hall
b. *? een volledig kurkdroge doek
  fully  bone.dry cloth