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  • The physical foundation of the patterning of physical action verbs: A study of Chinese verbs by Hong Gao
  • Karen Steffen Chung
The physical foundation of the patterning of physical action verbs: A study of Chinese verbs. By Hong Gao. (Travaux de l’institut de linguistique de Lund XLI.) Lund: Lund University, 2001. Pp. xiv, 265. ISBN 9197411639.

Action verbs is author Hong Gao’s Ph.D. dissertation revised for publication as this book. Ch. 1 offers an ‘overview of physical action verbs’ and introduces such concepts as ‘natural agreement between semantics and syntax’ (16), energy source, flow, overflow, [End Page 800] transfer, and sink (28). Ch. 2 summarizes previous studies of motion verbs and presents the author’s basic thesis that physical action verbs mirror the particular characteristics of the body parts involved in their execution. In Ch. 3, G applies the MARVS (module-attribute representation of verbal semantics) model to show how directional satellites will mirror the physical limitations of the body part used to perform a given action; for example, gui4 ‘to kneel’, usually combines with xia4 ‘down’.

In Ch. 4, G compares the ‘distributional differences in the syntactic patterns of near-synonyms to determine the relevant components of verb meaning’ (89). She draws up semantic hierarchies, in which specific actions are subsumed under more general verbs; she also looks at such features as intentionality and instantaneous vs. gradual action. This is interesting in that it renders explicit many of the subconscious judgments a speaker makes when choosing one verb over another.

Ch. 5 examines the combinability of physical action verbs into VV resultative, directional, and phase resultative constructions. Concrete examples are given of how ‘the more possible acts that a physical body part can perform, the more components of meaning such a verb may carry and the more dimensions its syntactic structure extends to’ (126). Ch. 6 examines ‘verbs of intentional physical contact for love and friendliness’ and ‘for punishment and revenge’ (127). These verbs are often found to include ‘information about the agent and patient’ or even ‘the body part and the instrument’ (156).

G notes in Ch. 7 that the polysemous verb da3 ‘to strike’ can be used literally, metaphorically, and as a light verb, and that it occurs more often and with more extended metaphorical use in mainland than in Taiwan usage. Moreover, Chinese da3 extends ‘into many more semantic fields’ than the Swedish slå ‘to hit, strike’ (202). The author seems to have failed, however, to note the inchoative use of da3 when used as a light verb in VV compounds, e.g. da3 suan4, ‘to plan’.

In Ch. 8, ‘Children’s production of physical action verbs’, G investigates child use of the verbs da3, slå, and hit/beat in the three target languages: Chinese, Swedish, and English, respectively. The conclusion, Ch. 9, is a brief recap of the main points of the work, along with a short list of issues for future study.

This is a carefully executed work. There are various minor typographical, Romanization, and English usage errors, but overall the English is clear, to-the-point, and correct.

Action verbs is a descriptive rather than theoretical work in which the author presents a rich array of diverse data in interesting formats. Yet what does it all mean, and where can one go with it? These questions must perhaps be left to a follow-up study on this intriguing but as yet inconclusive area of investigation.

Karen Steffen Chung
National Taiwan University


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pp. 800-801
Launched on MUSE
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