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1. INTRODUCTION. Standard Spanish has several elatives or expressions of high degree. Some of them are morphological in nature (-isimo), others are adverbial (extremadamente 'extremely', increiblemente 'incredibly', etc.) (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language [RAE] 2010). Elatives normally denote the highest point on a scale of degrees or a point that exceeds a conventional scale (cf. Bosque 2002). Elatives contrast with degree intensifiers, such as muy 'very' in muy alto 'very tall' or bien in bien alto 'very tall' or bien guapo 'very handsome' in that degree intensifiers do not denote the highest point on a scale or one that exceeds it. In this paper we study the behavior of the degree adverb bien in Spanish (examples 1-2). Our data come from Puerto Rican Spanish (PRSp), a Spanish dialect that differentiates between bien and muy. We argue that, in contrast to other dialects or standard Spanish (StSp), bien behaves as an elative or quantifier of extreme degree in PRSp (Bartra and Villalba 2006, Morzycki 2010, Armstrong and Pastor 2015, Paradis 2000, Lorenz 2002, Ito & Tagliamonte 2003, Tagliamonte & Roberts 2005, Tagliamonte 2008; among others for the diachronic and synchronic study of intensifiers).

(1) a. Tu nuevo apartamento es bien bonito. 'Your new apartment is very beautiful.' b. Tu nuevo apartamento es muy bonito. 'Your new apartment is very beautiful.'

(2) a. La ciudad de Nueva York es bien peligrosa. 'New York City is very dangerous.'

b. La ciudad de Nueva York es muy peligrosa. 'New York City is very dangerous.'

This use should not be confused with the manner adverbial interpretation of bien in bien escrito 'well written' or bien escrita 'well written' (Hernanz 2010):

(3) a. El ensayo te quedo (muy) bien / mal escrito.

'The essay turned outto be (very) well / poorly written.'

b. Tu propuesta de tesis esta (muy) bien / mal escrita. 'Your thesis proposal is (very) well / poorly written.'

There are further connections between adverbial elatives and other constructions and expressions, such as superlatives, exclamatives, qualitative attributive constructions, and expressions of evidentiality, all of which are exemplified in (4), but such connections will not be explored here due to space limitations.

(4) a. el que corre mas rapido 'the fastest runner among us'

b. !Bien que la jodiste, hermano! 'Man, you screwed it!'

c. el idiota del gobernador 'that idiot of a governor'

d. Estoy seguro que Pepe vendra a la fiesta. 'I am sure that Pepe will come to the party.'

The paper is organized as follows: after a review of bien in Puerto Rican Spanish in section 2, in section 3 we examine the syntactic and semantic properties of elative expressions in general. Section 4 is devoted to the grammar of the degree adverb bien in PRSp. In section 5 we develop the syntactic and semantic analysis of bien. Section 6 presents our conclusions.

2. BIEN IN PUERTO RICAN SPANISH. The occurrence of the degree adverb bien in PRSp is a widespread phenomenon, as documented in spontaneous speech-data (5-7), with syntactic and semantic properties that have not been explained until now (Alvarez Nazario 1982; see Brown & Cortis-Torres (2013) for a quantitative analysis of bien/muy in Puerto Rican Spanish).

(5) El poderoso alcalde de Bayamon, Ramon Luis Rivera, lo tiene bien claro: Puerto Rico es muy pequeno para tener 78 municipios.

'The powerful major of Bayamon, Ramon Luis Rivera, is very clear about this: Puerto Rico is too small to have 78 municipalities.'

(Por la crisis proponen eliminar varios municipios [Primera Hora: 7-30-2011])

(6) Anadio que "el 70 por ciento de las personas que me critican y les contesto acaban bien contentos, porque logran entender lo que hacemos".

'He added that "the 70% of those who criticize me and have their concerns addressed end up feeling really happy, because they finally understand what we are doing".'

(Calle 13 una voz mas alla de la musica [El Vocero: 7-29-2011])

(7) 'Estoy bien molesto, me ha cai'do bien mal. [...]. Pero ahora mismo, creo que no me merezco esto... estoy bien dolido.'

'I am really upset, I did not like it at all [...]. But right now I don't think I deserve this. I am really hurt.'

(Chemo Soto esta frustrado, enojado y muy dolido con su hijo [Primera Hora: 9-28-2011])

Brown & Cortes-Torres (2013) is the only large-scale quantitative empirical analysis of muy/bien in PRSp to date. The authors examine the linguistic and social factors that predict the variation of bien and muy as intensifies using quantitative and variationist methodologies in order to determine rates of use and potential pathways of change, and conclude that in informal, spontaneous, conversational Spanish, the use of bien as an intensifier for adjectives far outweighs the use of muy in frequency in this Caribbean dialect. Furthermore, they argue that bien has a positive modal meaning and hence enhances a positive semantic reading, but its use is disfavored in cases with an intended negative semantic interpretation. Their paper does not have as its goal, however, an analysis of the syntactic and semantic constraints on the alternation between muy and bien in PRSp, as understood in contemporary formal grammar. Other authors have also provided partial accounts of the role of these intensifiers in other varieties or languages (Arjona 1990, Sedano 2002-2004, Serradilla Castano 2006, Tagliamonte 2008).

The standard position in the descriptive and normative tradition is summarized in the following statement from the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE): '[e]l adverbio bien es un cuantificador de grado, cercano a muy o a bastante como en El programa de hoy es {bien ~ muy ~ bastante} interesante, pero de caracter enfatico y restringido a contextos afirmativos: La diferencia no es {muy ~ *bien} clara' (RAE 2010). These uses are also documented in certain areas of Latin America (CREA 2011) (ex. 8-13), but are scarcely documented in Peninsular Spanish, with the exception of Canarian and Andalusian Spanish (cf. Brazilian Portuguese and Catalan).


(8) Y el puente que habia al comienzo de la avenida La Salle, eso que sube hacia la Andres Bello, eso era bien bonito.

And the bridge located at the beginning of La Salle Avenue, that portion going toward Andres Bello Street, that was very pretty.'


(9) Lidia Tamayo, arpista: Va a ser un programa bien bonito. 'Lidia Tamayo, harp player: It is going to be a very nice show.'

El Salvador:

(10) 'Esta va a ser tu nueva casa y te voy a ensenar un cuartito bien bonito con juguetes, que va a ser tuyo,' dijo Xenia.

"This is going to be your new house and I am going to show you a very pretty little room with toys, which is going to be yours," Xenia said.' Chile:

(11) Despues me nacio Fernando dos anos mas atrasito maldadoso como el solo eso si que bien bonito.

'Two years later my Fernando was born, a really wicked but very handsome boy.'


(12) Todo nino, por ultimo, tiene derecho a crecer acompanado de las aventuras de Tio Tiore y Tio Conejo, de aquel caballo que era bien bonito.

'Every kid has the right to grow up in the company of the adventures of Uncle Tiore and Uncle Conejo, and of that very beautiful horse.'


(13) Uf, no te imaginas, si algo le reconozco yo al chancho ese es que escribe bien bonito.

'If there is anything I give credit to that guy for is that he writes very well.'

However, as stated in the introduction, in PRSp bien is associated with an elative or extreme degree interpretation which is not found in adverbial muy (Hernanz 2010; Serradilla Castano 2006). In the following section we discuss the syntactic and semantic properties of elative expressions. As is standard in contemporary formal grammar, data in the following sections mostly comes from selective grammaticality judgments by native speakers of this dialect.

3. ELATIVE EXPRESSIONS. Elatives normally denote the highest point on a scale of degrees or a point that exceeds a conventional scale (Bosque 2002), that is, elatives introduce a conventional scalar implicature to the effect that the degree property they express lies at the extreme end of a contextually given scale:

(14) a. Ese vino es [extremadamente caro]. 'That wine is extremely expensive.'

b. Tu nuevo coche es [excesivamente grande]. 'Your new car is excessively big.'

Thus, in (14a) the elative expression extremadamente 'extremely' expresses that the wine is expensive to degree d, where d exceeds the speaker's expectations of being expensive (Gutierrez-Rexach 2008). In other words, elatives require that the degree d referred to exceeds a norm or average on a given scale of degrees (Kennedy & McNally 2005). As previously stated, elatives contrast with degree intensifiers, such as muy, in that degree intensifiers do not denote the highest point on a scale or one that exceeds it (Morzycki 2010). Consider the following sentences:

(15) a. Juan es extremadamente alto. 'Juan is extremely tall.'

b. Juan es muy alto. 'Juan is very tall.'

While in (15a) we have the interpretation that Juan is d-tall where d exceeds the speaker's expectations (i.e., an elative or high degree interpretation), in (15b) we obtain the interpretation that Juan is d-tall and d is high on a degree scale D. In other words, muy places an individual in the upper portion of the contextual degree domain C. Thus, Juan is very tall is a true statement only if Juan is tall to a degree near the top of the sepeaker's perspective scale. The adverb muy makes a weaker claim than elative expressions.

Spanish has several elatives or expressions of extreme degree. Some of them are morphological in nature: -isimo, re-, requete-, super-, hiper-, mega-, ultra-, etc. (16), while others are adverbial (17):

(16) a. Esta chica es [inteligentisima].

b. Esta chica es [requete inteligente]. 'This girl is extremely intelligent.'

(17) a. Esta chica es [extremadamente inteligente].

b. Esta chica es [tremendamente inteligente].

'This girl is extremely intelligent.'

In Puerto Rican Spanish, the morpheme -isimo is only used for superlatives (Alvarez Nazario 1982) and not for the expression of elativity. The following contrasts are attested in the elative interpretation:

(18) a. Esta [bien bueno].

'It is very good.'

b. #Esta buenisimo.

(19) a. Esta [bien enfermo].

'He is very sick.'

b. #Esta enfermisimo.

Furthermore, the use of -isimo and its variants -isisimo (cf. altisisimo 'very tall', deemed uneducated by Navarro Tomas 1948) tends to be restricted to colloquial discourse. The morphemes -isimo and -isisimo need further study since there may be semantic and pragmatic differences in their use and distribution:

(20) a. Jose Juan Barea es [bajisisimo]. 'Jose Juan Barea is very very short.'

b. Un abrazotote [grandisisimo].

'A very very big hug.'

The interpretation of -isimo tends to vary among speakers of Puerto Rican Spanish. Moreover, they express that -isimo behaves as muy and its variant -isisimo as bien (isimo ~ muy : isisimo ~ bien). This should not be surprising, since reduplication is clearly a strategy to express high degree in Spanish (e.g., muy muy alto 'very very tall' = extremadamente alto 'extremely tall'), as we will see in the following section.

4. THE GRAMMAR OF BIEN. In this section we discuss the syntax and semantics of adverbial bien in Puerto Rican Spanish. First, bien cannot combine with other modifiers of extreme degree (21) whereas muy can (22). This is indeed evidence that muy does not behave like an adverb of extreme

degree. In fact, this is true for English too. For many English speakers, very cannot combine with extreme degree modifiers: *very excellent, *very marvelous, *very fantastic, *very gigantic, etc. (Morzycki 2010).

(21) a. *Es extremadamente bien listo.

b. *Es increiblemente bien listo.

c. *Es requete bien listo.

(22) a. Es extremadamente muy listo. 'He is extremely very smart.'

b. Es increiblemente muy listo. 'He is incredibly very smart.'

c. Es requete muy listo. 'He is very very smart.'

Second, bien lacks the non-elative or superlative interpretation characteristic of -isimo or el mas in Standard Spanish. Thus, the sequence el que corre bien rapido 'the one who runs very fast' lacks a superlative interpretation in contrast with el que corre mas rapido 'the fastest among us'. Additionally, in PRSp it is possible to prepose the degree adverb mas 'more' in a superlative construction (Bosque & Brucart 1991, Gutierrez-Rexach & Gonzalez-Rivera 2012, Rohena-Madrazo 2007). This is not possible with bien:

(23) a. El mas rapido que corre. 'The one who runs the fastest' b. *E1 bien rapido que corre.

Third, muy as an intensifier of relative (high) degree can be contrasted with un poco 'a little'; this contrast is not possible with bien either:

(24) a. No es muy listo, es solo un poco. 'He is not that smart, just a little bit.' b. *No es bien listo, es solo un poco.

Fourth, bien as an extreme degree modifier can be displaced to the left periphery in order to check exclamative force (Gutierrez-Rexach 2001, Masullo 2012), i.e. extreme degree interpretation, as in the following structural arrangement: [[.sub.force]bien [[.sub.adj] AdjP [[.sub.topic]que...]]; on the other hand, muy lacks this feature:

(25) a. jBien rica (que) te quedo la comida! 'The food was excellent!'

b. *!Muy rica (que) te quedo la comida!

(26) a. !Bien que la armo ese individuo! 'What a mess he has created!'

b. *!Muy que la armo ese individuo!

Fifth, reduplication of the intensifier muy is normally used as a device to express extreme degree in StSp (Roca & Suner 1998) (cf. CREA: Spain, Cuba, Argentina). In PSRp this is also the case:

(27) a. Muy muy rico. 'Very very good.'

b. Muy pero que muy rico. 'Very very good.'

The following example from PRSp is taken from the Corpus de Referenda del Espanol Actual (CREA):

(28) [...] Y lo mas interesante es que el sector estudiantil, que estaba dentro del campus, era muy muy grande lo que su primer pensamiento era: "Hay que salvar la universidad de esta gente.'

'[...] And the most interesting thing is that the student body in campus was very very big, so his first thought was, "We need to save the university from these people.'"

Brown and Cortes (2013) provide the following example of the reduplication of muy:

(29) Ademas tuvimos un vuelo, el vuelo que tuvimos para aca fue muy, muy tranquilo, un vuelo bien tranquilo.

'We also had a flight, the flight we had over here was very, very quiet, a good flight, a very quiet flight.'

On the other hand, bien in PRSp cannot be reduplicated, since it is already an expression of extreme degree:

(30) a. ??J3ien bien rico. 'very very rich/tasty'

b. ??Bien pero que bien rico.

When reduplication of bien occurs, the sequence tends to be interrupted by a slight intonational pause (cf. CREA).

(31) Es bien, bien curiosa esa seriedad de las jevas cuando bailan en estos rumbones de salsa.

'It is very, very curious, how serious the girls are when they dance salsa.'

Sixth, intensifying degree expressions can participate in qualitative attributive constructions (32b) (Espanol-Echevarria 1997). This is not the case with bien, since extreme degree modification is incompatible with standard qualitative attribution, as shown in (32c) (cf. *el idiotisimo del gobernador 'that idiot-SUPERLAT of a governor' in StSp).

(32) a. el idiota del gobernador 'the idiot of the governor'

b. el muy idiota del gobernador 'the very idiot of the governor'

c. *el bien idiota del gobernador

Finally, there is strong evidence that the use of bien is related to the expression of evidentiality in PRSp. Only constructions showing a high degree of commitment on the part of the speaker to the truth of his assertion are compatible with elative bien. Elative bien is not compatible with the verbs parecer 'seem' or dudar 'doubt', or with negation of a strong assertion, etc. This contrasts with the non-evidential muy, which can occur in these environments.

(33) a. Me parece que la comida esta muy buena. 'It seems that the food tastes very good.'

b. *Me parece que la comida esta bien buena.

(34) a. Dudo que la comida este muy buena. 'I doubt that the food tastes very good.'

b. *Dudo que la comida este bien buena.

(35) a. No se si Mariana es muy recatada. 'I don't know if Mariana is honest.'

b. *No se si Mariana es bien recatada.

On the other hand, bien can occur in the scope of verbs with strong evidential character, such as estar seguro 'be sure', prometer 'promise', etc.

(36) a. Estoy seguro de que la comida estara bien buena, conozco el restaurante. 'I am sure that the food will taste very good, I know the restaurant.'

b. Te prometo que la comida estara bien buena.

'I promise you that the food will taste very good.'

c. Se que Mariana no es bien recatada.

'I know that Mariana is not very honest.'

5. SYNTACTIC AND SEMANTIC ANALYSIS. Syntactically, we argue that bien encodes the feature [+extreme degree] and triggers the operation AGREE, understood as identity of value (Pesetsky & Torrego 2007). The fact that bien can raise to ForceP to check exclamative force (extreme degree interpretation) (cf. examples 25a-26a) suggests that it encodes the feature [+extreme degree]. There is also a clear relation between degrees (Kennedy & McNally 2005) and modality in the left periphery, since attributions of extreme degree are normally relative to an ordering (scale) based on the speaker's judgment or preferences. Thus, it can be claimed that bien is attracted by modal heads and also by sentential force (exclamative) heads. In other words, checking exclamative force requires checking extreme degree (Villalba 2008, Andueza 2011, etc.). This also explains the ungrammaticality of bien in qualitative attributive constructions (cf. example (32c)). Interestingly, bien is incompatible with superlative adjectives in (37), (38), and (39), while muy is not: *bien vetusto ~ muy vetusto 'very ancient'; *bien minimo ~ muy minimo 'extremely tiny'; *bien pauperrimo ~ muy pauperrimo 'extremely poor' (CREA 2011):

(37) Una ancha avenida sombreada por antiguas arboledas conduce a la parte del trabajo, a un caseno muy vetusto que era el casco original de la estancia. 'A broad avenue shadowed by old trees leads to the working side, to a very ancient house, which was the original living space.'

(38) O sea, ?que para usted esas fuentes son una pura invencion? No, pura no. Tienen un minimo, pero muy minimo, de hecho historico, muy minimo. 'Thus, for you those sources are pure invention? No, not pure. They have a minimum, very minimal amount, of historical fact, very minimal.'

(39) Se ha destinado un veinte por ciento legalmente autorizado por el gobierno del costo de las trilladoras, cuyo parque vehicular en la region es muy pauperrimo, se necesitan incrementar el numero de unidades dado que durante las cosechas se necesitan.

'Twenty percent of the cost of the harvesters has been legally authorized by the government. Their number is extremely poor, and it needs to be increased since they are needed during the harvest season.' (

Finally, there are some fixed colloquial expressions in Puerto Rican Spanish with bien that involve only high degree interpretation:

(40) a. Bien brutal

'[That is] extremely amazing'

b. *Muy brutal

(41) a. Bien animal

'[He is] extremely ignorant'

b. *Muy animal(42) a. Bien a fuego '[That is] extremely awesome'

b. *Muy a fuego

(43) a. Bien arrebatao

'[He is] extremely high'

b. *Muy arrebatao

(44) a. Bien cabron

'[That is] extremely good'

b. *Muy cabron

(45) a. Bien bicha

'[She is] extremely nasty'

b. *Muy bicha

(46) a. Bien loco

'[He is] extremely crazy'

b. *Muy loco

Semantically, bien can be characterized as an operator of extreme degree as in (47), and as such, it is modal in nature and relates only to those belief-worlds to which the speaker has a high degree of commitment. Formally:

(47) Let P be a degree property; D a set of degrees, d a degree belonging to D; and j an individual, then: Bien (P)(j) = True if and only if there is a degree d such that [EXTR.sub.D](d) and P(d)(j).

The operator EXTR creates an ordering relation among degrees and d occupies the highest place. Notice also that exclamative expressions are treated as expressions of high/extreme degree (Castroviejo 2006). Finally, EXTR is intensionalizing, in that requires relativization to a modal perspectival norm (normally dictated by the speaker). The modal content of bien is characterized, following Kratzer (1981), as consisting of a modal (evidential) base and a similarity (preference) relation on worlds.

(48) Let 5 be a modal similarity (preference) relation on worlds. If bien (P)(w) (j), then for every world w' such that w' is stronger than w (with respect to 5) it is the case that Bien(P) (w')(j).

The modal relation S is associated to the commitment of the speaker (j) to the truth of the proposition on the basis of a set of facts from the common ground (evidential base).

5. CONCLUSION. In this paper it has been argued that adverbial elative bien in Puerto Rican Spanish encodes the feature [+extreme degree]. In other words, it behaves as an elative or quantifier of extreme degree. Muy does not encode [+extreme degree] in PRSp. We have also argued that bien, as an operator of extreme degree, is modal in nature and relates to only those belief-worlds to which the speaker has a high degree of commitment. This property seems to suggest potential fruitful avenues for further research: for example, to determine whether it would be possible to establish microparametric variation within Latin American Spanish and Peninsular Spanish with respect to this property. Another avenue for future research is the study of some of the contrasts presented here in an experimental quantitative fashion, using accepted measuring and testing tools to determine whether there is variation in this properties in the PR speaking community and in other Caribbean varieties.


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Department of Spanish and Portuguese

The Ohio State University

Columbus, OH 43210


Department of Hispanic Studies

University of Houston

Houston, TX 77204



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* Dr. Javier Gutierrez-Rexach passed away on April 10, 2016. We publish this work to honor his memory.
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Author:Gutierrez-Rexach, Javier; Gonzalez-Rivera, Melvin
Publication:International journal of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest
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Geographic Code:1U0PR
Date:Jun 1, 2014

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