The Processing of Secondary Meaning: An Experimental Comparison of Focus and Modal Particles in Wh-questions

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Abstract

We present experimental work on the processing of secondary meaning as conveyed by the German modal particles nur and bloß in wh-questions. We compare the processing of these particles with the processing of the polysemous focus particles. We argue that nur and bloß as modal and focus particles have a common semantic denominator, namely domain restriction. As modal particles, they further feature the component of domain extension. This contrast between domain restriction and extension is the semantic reason for why wh-questions featuring these modal particles often express confusion, frustration, if not desperation on the part of the speaker. Results of two comprehension experiments show that while the processing of the modal vs. focus particle meaning does not differ, the particles differ in that bloß is more accessible in its modal particle reading than nur, indicating a distinction between these otherwise synonymous elements that has not been observed so far.