Zero, Null Individuals, and Nominal Semantics in Cantonese

Marcin Morzycki, Hary Chow


It has been convincingly argued that English zero provides evidence for introducing null individuals into the ontology of natural language (Bylinina & Nouwen 2018). We examine ‘zero’ in Cantonese, where it provides evidence that such null individuals are a matter of crosslinguistic variation. Cantonese zero has a more restricted distribution. It occurs widely in a number of contexts, but it is systematically ruled out with ordinary classifiers. These facts, coupled with assumptions about the nature of measurement and nominal semantics, demonstrate despite its extensive use in the language, zero is impossible in precisely the uses that require null individuals. Cantonese seems to be telling us that such null individuals are simply absent from its ontology, implying an interesting difference in natural language metaphysics between the languages—and perhaps a different perspective on what theoretical shape crosslinguistic variation can take.


Copyright (c) 2022 Marcin Morzycki, Hary Chow