Date of Award

May 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Nicholas Fleisher

Committee Members

Hamid Ouali, Garry Davis, Peter van Elswyk


The following is an investigation of the syntax and semantics of two types of non-standard wh-construction in Korean: one concerns so-called why-like what-interrogatives, where what-questions are construed as why-questions asking for cause/reason/purpose, and the other concerns what-exclamatives, which are used to express a speaker’s emotive attitude toward a certain state of affairs or degree. Both of these wh-constructions are viewed as nonstandard in the sense that they behave differently from standard what-questions. In this dissertation, I aim to provide a syntactically and semantically precise characterization of the two non-standard wh-constructions in Korean.

Korean why-like what-interrogatives, namely mwe-l-interrogatives, raise many theoretical questions of their own. Of particular interest and importance, of course, is the question of how what-questions can be interpreted as causal/reason/purpose questions without the help of a wh-adjunct like why. As the first attempt to address the challenging question within a compositional semantic framework, I propose to analyze Korean why-like what-questions as ‘ordinary what’-questions including a cause-operator that denotes a function taking two propositions (construed as sets of events) and returning true iff an event of propositional type p (introduced by what) is the cause of the definite event of propositional type q (introduced by the rest of the clause). On such a view, Korean why-like what-questions are interpreted as asking about what proposition p is such that an event of propositional type p is the cause of the salient event in question. The proposed analysis enables us to account for both regular and idiosyncratic properties of Korean why-like what-questions without the assumption thatwhat behaves like a wh-adjunct corresponding to why.

Another major contribution of this dissertation is to demonstrate, to my knowledge for the first time, the existence of what-exclamatives in Korean and to provide a thorough description and analysis of them. I argue that the descriptive content of Korean what-exclamatives, namely mwe-l-{ku/i}lehkey-exclamatives, denotes a maximal degree (d) derived via a maximalityoperator {ku/i}lehkey ‘so’, a function from a set of degrees to a unique maximal degree in the set. In terms of illocutionary speech acts, I propose that Korean what-exclamatives are interpreted as assertions rather than expressives. To capture this assertive speech act, I argue that the maximal degree contributed by the wh-clause is fed to an assertive force operator, Excl-Op, which is a function of the form d > s, where s refers to a contextually provided standard established by the speaker’s expectation; this assertive proposition entails a violation of the speaker’s expectation, which in turn naturally gives rise to a sense of surprise or other relevant emotions of the speaker. Given that the speaker evaluates the assertive proposition (i.e., d > s) as positive or negative depending on the context, the assertive content is assumed to be used as input to an evaluative operator Eval-Op, a function from propositions to evaluative attitudes on the part of the speaker. This study allows us to improve our understanding of cross-linguistic variation in wh-exclamatives and to fill in a gap in the description of Korean exclamatives.

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