Sarah Zobel

A closer look at German “existential ‘man’”

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Unlike English ‘one’, which only occurs in generic sentences, the German impersonal pronoun ‘man’ can also be used in episodic sentences, see (1).

(1) Gestern hat man die Uni angezündet.
      yesterday has MAN the uni set-on-fire
      ‘Yesterday, MAN set the university on fire.’

In the literature, the contribution of ‘man’ in sentences like (1) is paraphrased as ‘someone’, and the use of ‘man’ in these sentences is called the “existential use” of ‘man’ (see e.g., Fenger 2018). In this talk, I take a closer look at the semantic behavior of “existential ‘man’”. I show that in this use, ‘man’ does not show any of the semantic characteristics commonly described for existentially quantified expressions (e.g., ‘someone’), making an existential analysis implausible (pace Malamud 2012). Instead, I propose that in sentences like (1), ‘man’ denotes a modifier of agentive one-place predicates that asks the interpreter to infer the missing argument, that is, one or more individuals that are involved as agents in the eventuality described by the predicate. That is, in (1) the individuals that are inferred are “the agent(s) of the set-on-fire-eventuality”.

Published Sep. 3, 2019 5:53 PM - Last modified Nov. 24, 2019 9:21 PM