Are there languages that have grammatical morphemes that specify the scope of modifiers?
We all know that the English phrase "old men and women" is ambiguous. Surface structure alone won't tell us whether it means "old men and young, middle-aged, and/or old women" or "old men and old women."

Are there natural languages that have grammatical morphemes that are used specifically to disambiguate such phrases?

For example, does any natural language have a particle that specifies the scope of a modifier like this?

old men DISAMBIG and women = old men and (any-age) women

old men and women DISAMBIG = old men and old women

For example, does any natural language inflect adjectives according to whether they modify only one noun or all nouns in a series?

old-suffix.A men and women = old men and (any-age) women

old-suffix.B men and women = old men and old women

These are just nonce examples. I imagine that real examples from natural languages would be different.

  • 1
    While not part of syntax or morphology, intonation can be used to disambiguate between potential bracketings.
    – jogloran
    Apr 15, 2012 at 6:42
  • English has a number of grammatical morphemes that do this, including demonstratives, articles, etc. Apr 17, 2012 at 4:14

1 Answer 1


ASL has grammatical morphemes, in the form of facial expressions, that function as modifiers and co-occur with the manual signs they modify1. The modifier has scope over all the signing produced with that facial expression. Example: enter image description here

Raised brows signal a sentence topic, analogously to the Japanese particle wa/ga. Here the topic is the whole “old man and woman” part, so the brows are raised and held while signing those three signs. A scrunched up lip signals a relative clause, and the sign “old” gets an up-lip, so a more accurate translation would be “a man who is old”. Not exactly what you're looking for, but close.

Location in space is another grammatical morpheme. This stuff is better written in vertical columns, and then it would show how "man who is old" is signed over to the signer's left, and "woman" is signed over to the right side. If they were both old, they'd both be signed on the same side.

1. Carol Neidle, Judy Kegl, Dawn MacLaughlin, Benjamin Bahan, and Robert G. Lee (2000) The Syntax of American Sign Language: Functional Categories and Hierarchical Structure. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Section 3.4.3 starting on Page 42

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