Arguments against 'subject' and 'direct object' as viable concepts in Chinese
Randy J. LaPolla
- Thirty-one years ago Tsu-lin Mei (1961) argued against the traditional doctrine that saw the subject-predicate distinction in grammar as parallel to the particular- universal distinction in logic, as he said it was a reflex of an Indo-European bias, and could not be valid, as ‘Chinese ... does not admit a distinction into subject and predicate’ (p. 153). This has not stopped linguists working on Chinese from attempting to define ‘subject’ (and ‘object’) in Chinese. Though a number of linguists have lamented the difficulties in trying to define these concepts for Chinese (see below), most work done on Chinese still assumes that Chinese must have the same grammatical features as Indo-European, such as having a subject and a direct object, though no attempt is made to justify that view. This paper challenges that view and argues that there has been no grammaticalization of syntactic functions in Chinese. The correct assignment of semantic roles to the constituents of a discourse is done by the listener on the basis of the discourse structure and pragmatics (information flow, inference, relevance, and real world knowledge) (cf. Li & Thompson 1978, 1979; LaPolla 1990).