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On the development of binominal quantifiers in Spanish: the notion of lexical persistence revisited

Katrien Verveckken & Nicole Delbecque


La présente étude propose une révision de la conception très répandue selon laquelle les processus de routinisation et, en particulier, de ‘désémantisation’ sont une condition préalable de la grammaticalisation. Pour les approches basées sur l’usage, l’élévation du taux de fréquence (à la fois au niveau des types et des occurrences) découle du processus autant qu’elle y contribue de façon décisive (Bybee 2003: 605). Le raisonnement est le suivant: sous l’effet de la répétition (habituation) l’impact d’un stimulus diminue; une fréquence en hausse entraîne, dès lors, un affaiblissement graduel de la force sémantique (bleaching ou généralisation du sens), pour déboucher sur une perte de transparence sémantique et de compositionalité, c’est-à-dire, sur un changement sémantique. Or, d’une analyse sur corpus portant sur neuf noms quantifieurs de l’espagnol il ressort que non seulement ils présentent une distribution irrégulière mais que, de plus, ils peuvent se grammaticaliser sans pour autant se prêter aux phénomènes typiques de routinisation. Nous montrons que la grammaticalisation des quantifieurs binominaux procède par ‘analogie conceptuellement motivée’ (Delbecque & Verveckken 2014) et tout en soulignant le rôle moteur crucial de la persistance sémantique, nous en reconnaissons la portée encyclopédique (amplifiant ainsi la notion de ‘persistance lexicale’ de Hopper 1991).

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1 Introduction

  • 1 Traditionally, the notion of ‘quantifying nouns’ (or ‘sustantivos cuantificativos’ in RAE & ASALE 2 (...)

1Quantifying nouns (QNs) present a quantifying potential in addition to their lexical meaning. QNs typically refer to containers (a barrel, a mouthful, etc.), configurations (a heap, a bunch, etc.) or collectives (a flock, a swarm, etc.). When a prepositional phrase (in Spanish, de ‘of’ + N2) is added to specify the constituents, the binominal syntagm is called a binominal quantifier construction (BQ construction), as in (1).1



una pilaN1 de añosN2

‘a lotN1 (lit. pile) of yearsN2


un montónN1 de genteN2

‘a lotN1 (lit. heap) of peopleN2


un racimoN1 de casitasN2

‘a bunchN1 of litlle housesN2

2Data analysis further reveals that lexical fields related to spectacular nature phenomena beyond human control (e.g., aluvión ‘flood’, piélago ‘deep, open sea’, etc.) and abstract expressive nouns (e.g., barbaridad ‘barbarity, atrocity’ or horror ‘horror’) reveal a similar quantifying potential, as in Le ocupa una barbaridad de tiempo ‘It occupies him an awful lot of time’ (see Verveckken 2012b).

3The binominal syntagm is crosslinguistically seen as the locus of grammaticalization processes (Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2009, Verveckken 2012b): within the binominal syntagm, the QN (or N1) that constitutes the head of the construction ([una pila] [de libros] ‘[a pile] [of books]’), gets reanalyzed as quantifying or specifying the entities denoted by N2 ([[una pila de] años] ‘[[a pile of] years]’ respectively [[un hatajo de] idiotas] ‘[[a bunch (lit. herd) of] idiots]’). Since, BQ constructions in Spanish present a complex frequency pattern that occurs with high-frequency elements (montón ‘heap’, mar ‘sea’) as well as with low-frequency items (hatajo ‘herd’, barbaridad ‘barbarity’), their grammaticalization is, however, not straightforward, at least not in usage-based terms.

4The usage-based framework stipulates indeed that increasing frequency is both the reason for and result of grammaticalization (Bybee 2003, 2006). The triggering role of high frequency in grammaticalization – or put more carefully, the restriction towards items displaying relatively high token frequency – relates to the process of desemanticization or generalization of meaning considered fundamental in the usage-based approach. The reasoning is as follows: while a stimulus loses its impact when it occurs very frequently (via the mechanism of habituation, Bybee 2003: 714), the loss of semantic force and specificity correlates with an “increase in the contexts in which the gram may be appropriately used” (Bybee 2003: 605). It goes without saying that context expansion in turn leads to increased frequency.

  • 2 For a detailed discussion on the role of the definite determiner, see Verveckken 2012a: 186-202. In (...)
  • 3 It does not seem to be a coincidence that the verb 'to go', and not 'to come', cross-linguistically (...)

5Previous corpus analysis (Verveckken 2012a) has revealed that the frequency pattern of Spanish BQ constructions is remarkable for at least three reasons. Firstly, the association between the binominal construction and the concept of quantity has become sufficiently conventionalized in the sense that any noun referring to a mass or multiplicity (either directly or via intermediate pragmatic inferences) can now fill the QN slot and yield quantifying expressions. Secondly, the high type frequency of the (schematic) BQ construction (viz. the productivity of the construction) contrasts with the limited token frequency of some individual QNs which nevertheless present a high proportion of grammaticalized uses. The most remarkable example is barbaridad de, which only occurs nine times in the corpus yet always conveys a quantifying reading (cf. infra). Thirdly, the correlation between high frequency and an advanced stage of grammaticalization only holds for montón de ‘heap of’ and (la) mar de ‘(the) sea of’;2 these two QNs have given rise to dramatic syntactic expansion (to adverbial uses and adjective intensifier uses respectively); however, these extensions have also been observed with barbaridad de and mogollón de, which are not particularly frequent items. Verveckken (2012b) argues that this particular behavior can be explained by distinguishing different constructional levels: the grammaticalization of low frequency QNs (e.g., barbaridad or mogollón) can be triggered by the grammaticalization of structurally related high frequency QNs (e.g., montón, (la) mar) and by the consequent emergence of a schematic binominal pattern associated with the expression of quantity. As a consequence, low frequency items need not to increase in frequency nor to engage in a routinization process in order to acquire functional uses.  In view of the broad interpretive latitude of many QNs and the strong collocational ties between many QNs and their discourse context, Delbecque & Verveckken (2014) frame the grammaticalization of Spanish binominal quantifiers in terms of conceptually-driven analogy. Following Traugott (2010), who states that an item under grammaticalization may lose in semantic specificity with necessarily losing in semantic complexity, we attribute a major role to the interaction between conceptual persistence and analogic associations.3 In this paper, we zoom in on the crucial role of semantic persistence, not merely as a side-effect of grammaticalization (cf. Hopper’s (1991) notion of ‘lexical persistence’), but rather as a driving force. Since the pragmatic function of binominal quantifiers, i.e. to hyperbolically express quantification (in contrast to the more usual quantifier mucho ‘many, much’), is based on the semantic persistence of conceptual facets of the QN’s original reading, the majority of the QNs are unlikely to bleach or desemanticize completely.

6The outline of the paper is as follows. In Section 2, we briefly sketch our methodology. In Section 3, we justify our approach of BQ constructions in terms of grammaticalization, in spite of the lack of routinization and automatization effects. In Section 4, we discuss the notion of ‘lexical persistence’ in grammaticalization theory, which, as defined by Hopper (1991), cannot account for the interpretive subtleties observed in our case-study; this leads us to suggest the notion of conceptual image persistence (Section 4.1) to explain the apparent inconsistencies found in our data (such as unexpected verb agreement or strong combinatorial restrictions on N2, Section 4.2). By way of illustration, the case-study on the minimal pair alud de ‘avalanche of’ and aluvión de ‘flood of’ shows not only that the near-synonymous QNs induce a proper conceptualization as reflected in their combinatorial pattern (Section 4.3), but also that the notion of persistence is to be refined as a gradual and unpredictable phenomenon (Section 4.4).

2 Methodology

  • 4 Irrelevant occurrences were filtered out manually. A token is irrelevant for our purpose when it is (...)

7The data for the analysis were drawn from CREA (Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual), the synchronic on-line corpus of the Real Academia Española, limiting ourselves to peninsular Spanish. No restrictions were made as to genre or year. For nine QNs which are representative in terms of the lexical fields involved, exhaustive samples of the query ‘QN + de’ were extracted were extracted; only those cases were retained in which the N1 displays a conventionalized quantifying reading: alud ‘avalanche’ (86 occurrences), aluvión ‘flood’ (150), barbaridad ‘barbarity’ (9), hatajo ‘herd’ (16), letanía ‘litany’ (26), mogollón ‘mess, fuss’ (46), montón ‘heap’ (1400), pila ‘pile’ (80) and racimo ‘bunch’ (48).4 For the sake of feasibility, the analysis of montón is limited to a representative sample of 500 tokens. All the examples were entered into a relational database and coded for number and determiner of both nominal elements, modification, agreement and collocational patterns. The parameterization further covers syntactic and pragmatic contextual indices at different levels of abstraction, the degree of conceptual image persistence, the reading of N1, that of N2, the pragmatic function of N1 (e.g., as intensifier or booster) and the objective/subjectified reading of the QN (Traugott 1989).

  • 5 For now, we leave the matter for further investigation in the near future.
  • 6 For the same reason, we did not differentiate between distinct discourse traditions (Kabatek 2005; (...)

8Although technically both the database and the CREA-corpus allow for differentiation as to genre, this paper does not provide an in-depth qualitative analysis of genre-related differences in the use of the BQ construction, since this variation does not seem to affect the  semantic persistence of the QN’s original meaning in functional uses. Moreover, it is striking – and significant in itself – that, except for barbaridad, mogollón, montón, and pila (rare), all occurrences of functional uses are restricted to written data (more precisely, novels and newspapers). What is more, the functional uses of mogollón exclusively – and of barbaridad mainly – appear in contexts of informal speech (possibly also informal dialogues as represented in theatre or novels). This observation suggests that only the more general and conventionalized QNsare frequently used in oral data, while the QNs with a rich source semantics – which are at the same time unlikely to drastically desemanticize – preferably occur in written data.5 In this sense, the grammaticalization of QNs nuances the widespread claim that changes first affect oral data. Although the spread to oral contexts can be interpreted as evidence of an advanced desemanticization of the QN, oral discourse is usually not the discourse context of the first attested functional uses of QNs.6

3 Binominal quantifiers: a locus of grammaticalization

9Various factors in the diachronic development of the BQ construction justify a description in terms of an unfinished grammaticalization process, in line with Traugott’s (2003: 645) recent definition as a “process whereby lexical material in highly constrained pragmatic and morphosyntactic contexts is assigned grammatical function, and once grammatical, is assigned increasingly grammatical, operator-like function.” Stated very simply, within the binominal construction, the QN (the head of the construction in una pila de libros ‘a pile of books’) gets reanalyzed as an expression that quantifies the mass designated by the noun following the preposition de ‘of’, as in una pila de años ‘a lot of years’. Crucially, the conceptualization of quantity inheres in the proper meaning of the QN as a lexical item. By way of illustration: to raise a pile it takes at least two books yet to obtain the vertical configuration typically associated with a pile more books are needed.

3.1 Lexical and functional uses

  • 7 For the detailed diachronic analysis of the BQ construction, see Verveckken 2012a (Chapters 3-5).
  • 8 The starting-point of the three-layered distinction of uses is Brems’ (2007, 2010) model of the Eng (...)

10The unfinished grammaticalization of the BQ construction in Spanish so far has led to the co-existence of three well-defined uses:7 the literal head use and two functional uses, viz. the quantifier use and the (two-way) specifier use.8 The three uses each present a proper morphosyntactic and semantic-conceptual make-up and occur in highly constrained contexts of usage. For lack of space, we only provide an short overview without going into the individual constructional characteristics (for details, see Verveckken 2012b, Delbecque & Verveckken 2014). In (2), pila de functions as head and refers to a vertical configuration of a number of X-rays nicely and intentionally piled up. In the head-uses, N1 activates the QN’s literal meaning as a full content word and is the semantic as well as the syntactic head of the construction. While the QN evokes a physical and concrete configuration, constellation or group, the prepositional phrase denotes the constituting entities.


El médico Manuel Muro, bata blanca y mirada franca, me habla desde el otro lado de una pila de radiografías amontonadas. (book, I. Jiménez, Enigmas sin resolver II. Nuevos y sorprendentes expedientes X españoles, 2000)

‘Doctor Manual Muro, white coat and an open expression, talks to me from the other side of a pile of X-rays heaped up.’

11In quantifier uses, the number or size of the N2-entities is assessed via metaphorization, by means of the conceptual image evoked by N1. In other words, quantity assessment in the BQ construction is assessed by a comparison construal invoking the specific configuration or constellation typically associated with N1. In (3), the number of children is assessed by comparing the number of N2 to the volume and dimensions associated with tropel ‘mob’ as a lexical item. In the quantifying uses, N2 functions as the head of the construction and constitutes the essential information in terms of clausal content, whereas N1 is nothing but a quantifier and can therefore be omitted or replaced by other quantifiers (such as mucho/a(s) ‘many, a lot’).


Mis padres murieron hace tiempo. Es falsa la leyenda del tropel de hijos y nietos: soy su única descendiente (press (newspaper), ABC Cultural, 10/05/1996).

‘My parents died long ago. The legend about the heap (lit. mob) of children and grandchildren is false: I am their only inheritor.’

12However, by replacing QNs by numerical quantifiers or by indefinite, relative ones such as algunos ‘some’, muchos ‘many’, numerosos ‘numerous’, subtle semantic nuances get lost. As a matter of fact, the productivity of the BQ construction for making expressive quantity judgments can only be explained in the light of the information it adds to pure quantity assessment. Binominal quantifiers differ from indefinite quantifiers in two respects: (1) while muchos hijos ‘many children’ merely designates a plurality, the BQ construction tropel de hijos ‘heap of children’ assesses the number of children in a slightly different manner by bonding or unitizing the plurality of N2 into a single set; (2) binominal quantifiers add a qualifying component to the expression of quantity in the sense that, by metaphorically comparing the set of N2 to the typical constellation of N1, several matching properties between N2 and N1’s original frame get highlighted.

13The N1 can also function as (two-way) specifier. It then adopts a modifying function in which it also bonds or singles out a set of N2-entities, yet quality assessment now prevails. Instead of merely agglomerating a set of N2-entities, N1 emphasizes their bondedness in terms of a specific quality associated to N1’s original frame, i.e. via metaphorization. Instead of merely quantifying N2, the QN primarily serves to modify N2 by means of N1. In (4), the exact number of people (N2) addressed is relegated to the background – the speaker usually knows how many persons he is addressing. What is at stake is their categorization as a bunch: they are profiled as a group of scatterbrained, stupid kids (lit. ‘little goats’) incapable of making their own decisions. The characteristic of N2 highlighted by N1 is thus again motivated by properties that are typically associated with the literal use of the QN.


- Dos cosas, por lo menos, debíais aprender de este hecho, hatajo de cabritos. (novel, L.M. Díez Rodríguez, La fuente de la edad, 1986)

‘Two things, at least, you ought to learn from this event, bunch (lit. ‘herd’) of goats.’

14Crucially, this second functional use generally evokes a third, external entity (X). In addition to grouping N2 in terms of N1, the entire BQ construction categorizes this external entity (the interlocutors addressed in (4)). In other words, two type specifications (of N2 and of X) are evoked, which is why we call this functional use two-way specifier use. This use typically shows up in attributive contexts, such as apostrophes (4), after exclamative qué, as the predicate of copular verbs, etc.

  • 9 The tests are not exhaustively listed here for the sake of text fluidity (but see Verveckken 2012a (...)

15The distinction between lexical and functional uses relies on a battery of syntagmatic and paradigmatic tests.9 Though highly distinctive, the paradigmatic and syntagmatic criteria are not watertight. There remains a small proportion (see Table 1) of ambivalent occurrences: we subdivide them into ‘ambiguous’ and ‘indeterminate’ uses, building on the distinction introduced by Willemse (2007: 562) and applied to binominal constructions in English by Brems (2007). In ambiguous uses (e.g., (5)), it cannot be derived from the context whether the files were neatly piled up, or whether the speaker just meant that he was working on different cases at the same time (with the files spread out on his desk as well as on a cabinet or on the floor). In other words, two distinct readings are equally plausible (Brems 2007: 562). On the other hand, an expression is considered ‘indeterminate’ (‘vague’ in Willemse’s terms) when its overall meaning blends two different uses: in (6), the verbal predicates emerge and se amontona support the literal sense of ‘pile’, while the abstract and unspecified nature of the things piled up (lo que nos sobra and lo que nos falta) enhances the quantifying potential of una pila de despojos. In other words, the indeterminate instances “do not allow disambiguation” (Brems 2007: 131).


Una noche estaba en mi oficina de Managua, trabajando en una pila de casos de violación de los derechos humanos y pensé (…)’ (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 21/09/1996)

 ‘One night I was in my office in Managua, working on a pile of cases of human rights violation and I thought (…).’


Miami, esa ciudad con nombre de cafetería, digo, y de chucho lanudo o niña pija, que viene a ser lo mismo, emerge como una pila de despojos donde se amontona por igual lo que nos sobra y lo que nos falta. (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 07/09/1994)

‘Miami, that city with the name of a pub, I would say, and of a hairy dog or a posh girl, which comes down to the same, emerges as a pile/lot of waste, where what we have left over and what we lack is piled up in equal piles.’

  • 10 We thank Maarten Lemmens (p.c.) for pointing out that the two elements may, but need not be related (...)

16The synchronic distribution of uses observed in our corpus is given in Table 1. Interestingly, except for barbaridad and mogollón, all QNs have developed two functional readings in addition to the literal one, without necessarily exploiting them to the same extent. The skewing should not be interpreted however as indicative of the ‘degree of grammaticalization’, in the sense of a specific step in the pathway of changes already reached by the QN. Although montón is by far the most common and frequently used QN – its quantifying reading is even conventionalized to the extent of figuring in lexicographic entries for montón –, the proportion of functional uses is lower than that of alud, aluvión, barbaridad, or mogollón, at least relatively speaking. The higher proportion of functional uses of alud or aluvión in comparison to montón and pila, for instance, does not mean that the former are highly grammaticalized, it rather illustrates Hoffmann’s concept of ‘conceptual frequency’ or ‘saliency’ (Hoffmann 2004: 191): the lexical use of pila and montón is more common simply because pila and montón are more basic and daily concepts than avalanches or floods. Two more elements can come in here as well. The first, which can be related to the common occurrence, is a larger type variation: there are more kinds of things that come in (literal) heaps/piles than things that come in avalanches or floods. In other words, there is already a stronger N2 type constraint in the literal uses for the latter two. Secondly, there is also a difference of scale which is crucial here; avalanches and floods are of a grander (and more destructive) scale than heaps and piles (whose size is relative to the constituting elements as well as the location). Since these quantifying uses are (often/always) based on metaphor and/or hyperbole, this is an important factor to their use.10

17The assumption as to the degree of grammaticalization – if that notion applies at all – is rather based on the syntactic context expansion realized (Himmelmann 2004).




















































































































Table 1. Synchronic layering of the uses observed for the binominal quantifier construction

3.2 Grammaticalization, lexicalization or analogical extension?

18As stated in the introduction, the grammaticalization of QNs is not straightforward. In view of the complex frequency pattern, it might be suggested that the so-called grammaticalization of low frequency QNs is merely a case of analogical extension to the prototype montón de (cf. Hoffmann 2004, Verveckken 2012b). Further, it may be asked whether the development of BQ constructions should not be considered a case of lexicalization, since some BQ constructions (especially those with a rich source semantics) maintain strong collocational ties with N2. In this section, we will adduce further arguments for considering the development of two functional uses (Section 3.1) as grammaticalization.

19In line with the loss-and-gain model of grammaticalization (Hopper & Traugott 2003, Brems 2007, Heine & Narrog 2010), the development of BQ constructions has clearly resulted in a redistribution of both formal and semantic properties. The de-categorialization concerns the loss of typical noun-features of the QN. Within the (quantifying) binominal context (7), the QN has indeed lost its combinatorial freedom as to determiners (7)’ and adjectives (7)’’. Pluralization is rare, typically collocates with gente ‘people’ and subject to doubling (pilas y pilas ‘heaps and heaps’) (7)’’’.


Hay una pila de gente en la puerta.

‘There is a heap of people at the door.’


*Hay la / ?esta pila de gente en la puerta. ‘the / that’

*Hay tres pilas de gente en la puerta. ‘three’


*Hay una pila alta de gente en la puerta. ‘high’

?Hay una pila grande de gente en la puerta. ‘big’

?Hay una gran pila de gente en la puerta. ‘big’


Hay pilas (y pilas) de gente en las calles. (Google)

‘There are heaps (and heaps) of people in the streets.’

20At the same time, the BQ constructions testify to a certain re-categorialization for having moved towards the grammatical category of quantifiers. BQ constructions overrule the combinatorial restrictions the literal N1 use imposes on N2: while the literal use of pila limits the N2 to nouns designating easily stackable objects usually made of paper (e.g., papel ‘paper’, revistas ‘magazines’, libros ‘books’, hojas ‘sheet’, etc.), and sometimes of textile (e.g., ropa ‘clothes’) or, more rarely, substances or substance-like elements (arena ‘sand’, basura ‘junk’), when grammaticalizing into quantifying una pila de the host-class expansion extends towards nouns referring to human entities and abstract temporal notions (e.g., una pila de años ‘a lot of years’, una pila de nietos ‘a lot of grandchildren’, etc.). The lifting of combinatorial restrictions on N2 is even more drastic in the cases of montón de and mogollón de, which are free to combine with any noun, generalizing over the abstract-concrete and count-mass noun distinctions (e.g., un montón de cambios / confianza / veces ‘a lot/heap of changes / confidence / times’; (un) mogollón de rabia ‘a lot / hell of anger’). Some QNs have developed the aptitude to intensify adjectives and adverbs (e.g., mogollón and mar in [8]-[9]) or to function themselves as clausal adverbs (e.g., barbaridad and montón in [10]-[11]). In addition, the entire string un(a) QN de can be substituted for by the quantifier mucho/a(s) and N2 can no longer combine with proper quantifiers or determiners (e.g., un mar de lágrimas / muchas lágrimas ‘a sea of tears / many tears’).


Luis Tosar no es guapo, pero es mogollón de atractivo. (press (newspaper), El País, 18/10/2002)

‘Luis Tosar is not handsome, but he is quite attractive.’


Para la Compañía de Jesús, según las malas lenguas, aquello fue un negocio redondo. Las malas lenguas estaban la mar de bien informadas.  (novel, F. Arrabal, La torre herida por el rayo, 1982).

‘For the Company of Jesus, according to the evil tongues, that was a profitable business. The evil tongues were extremely well [literally: the sea of well] informed.’


Al fin, rompió a llorar muy fuerte, con que si iba a matarse, y a mí me fastidiaba una barbaridad todo aquello, pero, por otra parte, daba lástima y no sabía cómo consolarle. (novel, R. Sánchez Mazas, La vida nueva de Pedrito de Andía, 1995)

‘In the end, he burst into tears, so that he was to commit suicide, and all that annoyed me enormously (lit. a barbarity), but, on the other hand, I felt compassion and did not know how to comfort him.’


Éramos amigos y nos queríamos un montón. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 10/03/1944)

‘We were friends and loved each other a lot.’

21Semantically, the shift to quantifying and/or specifying readings indeed resulted in a loss of concrete meaning or de-semanticization. Quantifying or specifying QNs no longer (necessarily) evoke a concrete, tangible configuration or group of spatiotemporally contiguous N2-entities. The expression un alud de cartas ‘an avalanche of letters’ does, of course, not yield the concrete image of an actual mass of letters loosened from a mountain side and descending swiftly and violently from it. Nor is there any mass of letters simultaneously crushing down on the speaker. Instead, the BQ construction acquires a quantifying reading and permits to expressively and hyperbolically quantify the group of letters. In other words, the de-semanticization is closely intertwined with a re-semanticization which yields the activation of a selection of relevant facets of N1’s original meaning. In preview of Section 4, it is fair to say that there is no loss of semantic complexity. Instead, in close interaction with the specific usage context, the individual QNs allow for a series of different construals of N2 by virtue of the conceptual image persistence associated with the QN.

  • 11 We therefore subscribe to De Smet’s (2013) polemic claim that syntactic change or innovation does n (...)

22Interestingly, De Smet (2013) attributes a ‘hybrid’ status to BQ construction crosslinguistically. Although they have come to express quantity assessment and expanded their structural scope, they continue to be compositional and analyzable. By way of comparison, no phonological attrition has taken place as is the case of some English constructions (e.g., helluva, (a)lotta). De Smet therefore considers BQ constructions as “hybrids” (2013: 31), i.e. instances that do not resort to a single analysis yet in their surface manifestation present characteristics of both underlying alternative analyses. Even if the operator-like function of BQ constructions cannot be denied, the concept of ‘syntactic reanalysis’ is at odds with the formal persistence in the development of QNs. Yet from a discourse perspective, there seems to be nothing problematic about the structural ambiguity of the construction: whether or not the QN combines with typically nominal features, the speaker will automatically exploit its quantifying potential.11

23In addition to the redistribution of formal and semantic properties, support for the grammaticalization hypothesis is found in the systematicity and the crosslinguistic recurrence of the BQ constructions. The binominal construction, as far as Spanish is concerned, is a highly productive tool for expressive quantification (and also qualification) of N2. In addition to a whole series of conventionalized QNs, such as montón ‘heap’, pila ‘pile’, racimo ‘bunch’, etc., any N1 with scalar implicatures can give rise to a quantifying BQ construction without necessarily resulting in a productive type. In view of the high type frequency of the binominal pattern linked to the expression of quantity (more precisely, to coextensiveness between N1 and N2, see Langacker 2011), it is highly probable that Spanish speakers  come up with a quantifying interpretation when asked to interpret a binominal syntagm with a novel noun in the N1-slot (e.g., un N1novel de veces ‘a N1novel of times’). Similarly, in one of the occurrences analyzed, the binominal pattern coerces a quantifying interpretation: in (12), the BQ construction forces a primarily countable noun to shift to mass noun interpretation.Finally, the binominal pattern appears to be a crosslinguistic locus of grammaticalization (Brems 2007, Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2009, Masini Fc., Mihatsch 2000, Traugott 2008).


Recalaron asimismo en el resguardado puerto de Fornells, (…). Asaron montones de sardineta para la tripulación, y guisaron además una gigantesca tortuga con alcachofas, habas, guisantes y patatas tiernas, (….). (novel, P. Fauner, Flor de sal, 1986)

‘‘They also ended up in the protected port of Fornells, (…). They roasted heaps of sardine for the crew, and they also cooked a giant turtle with artichokes, beans, peas and tender potatoes (…).’’

24In terms of the parameters of grammaticalization (see Lehmann 1995; Hopper 1991; Himmelmann 2004), the criteria which focus on the semantic changes involved in  grammaticalization are more useful in the case of BQ constructions than the set of formal parameters. The development of BQ constructions is characterized by host-class expansion, decategorialization and syntactic context expansion. First, the class of N2s the QN expands to animate and abstract nouns. Second, the shift into quantifying uses gave way to partial decategorialization or syntactic indeterminacy. Since thestring [indefinite determiner + QN  + de] is the default realization, the grammaticalization of BQ constructions also presents some degree of fixation. Finally, the grammaticalization of some Spanish BQ constructions definitely involves syntactic context expansion to adjective intensifier uses (in the case of mogollón de and la mar de) and to adverb uses (in the case of montón, mogollón and barbaridad).

25As to the semantic parameters, the development of BQ constructions gives proof of semantic-pragmatic context expansion, persistence, divergence, and a layering of uses. First, not only do QNs acquire quantifying and specifying uses, they are also endowed with an evaluative potential. Second, the differences in conceptualization between un montón de gente and una pila de gente, for instance, pertain to differences in the original lexical meaning and therefore rely on the contrast between literal un montón de libros ‘a heap of books’ and una pila de libros ‘a pile of books’. The latter profiles a neatly stacked up set, while the former evokes an unordered amount.  

26As can be derived from Table 1 in Section 3.1, the grammaticalization of Spanish BQ constructions has resulted in a synchronic layering of uses, where the ‘original’ lexical meaning persists alongside to the ‘newer’ quantifying and specifying uses. Finally, the development of BQ constructions is also characterized by divergence, since the literal QN continues to be used outside the binominal construction and in some cases exploits its quantifying potential in other construction types as well (e.g., a montones ‘in large number’, a mares ‘abundantly’, etc.).

  • 12 Traugott (2008) and Trousdale (Fc., following Traugott (2008)) distinguish four levels. The notion (...)

27Although the discussion above provides plausible arguments for the grammaticalization of BQ constructions in Spanish, the frequency-issue is still calling for an answer. Is it fair to claim that barbaridad, hatajo and letanía are involved in processes ofgrammaticalization if they only occur 9, 16 and 26 times respectively in the synchronic corpus? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to state that they develop quantifying uses by analogy to the conventionalized quantifying uses of high-frequency montón de? In order to account for the functional properties of low-frequency complex prepositions, Hoffmann (2004: 195) suggests that “low-frequency combinations grammaticalize by analogy to their more frequent ‘structural relatives’”. However, diachronic corpus analysis (Verveckken 2012a) has revealed not only that each of the analyzed QNs has followed a particular (sometimes even unique) pathway of change, but also that, at least until the beginning of the 19th century, the first functional uses of low-frequency items are always contextually embedded and arise via pragmatic strengthening or scalar implicatures. In line with the constructional networks proposed by Traugott (2008) and Trousdale (forthc.),12 we propose to distinguish distinct levels of constructional change. The reasoning is as follows: from the moment un montón de N2 (by far the first and most frequent QN attested) became an entrenched form-meaning pairing expressing quantity (or quality) assessment, it might have functioned as an analogical model in the sense that the emergence of new partially productive constructions is felt as less abrupt. Every new BQ construction then strengthens the spontaneous association between the binominal structure and the expression of a large quantity (at a more schematic level) and smoothens the emergence of new (possibly low-frequency) QNs. From the 19th century onwards, the binominal construction is automatically associated with the expression of quantity assessment to the extent that in Present-Day Spanish, the binominal pattern can ‘coerce’ the coextensive relation between N1 and N2 in creative language use, i.e. enable local reanalysis via analogical thinking.

28The question then arises as to the level of grammaticalization, in particular for the low-frequency items such as letanía de in examples such as (13). In this quantifying use there is still a clear link with the literal “verbally enunciated enumeration” as in a ‘true’ litany. Can it therefore be considered an instance of the grammaticalized (micro-)construction letanía de or is it merely an instantiation of the abstract BQ construction?

  • 13 This example has been taken from the CORDE-corpus, the diachronic online corpus of the Real Academi (...)


El zapatero, con más deseos de hacer reír a la gente que de insultar a la Jerónima, fue diciéndole una verdadera letanía de desvergüenzas: Cállate, penca del diablo, pata de afilador, albarda, zurupeta, tía chamusca, estropajo. (novel, R.J. Sender, Réquiem por un campesino español, 1953)13

‘The shoemaker, who felt more like making the people laugh than insulting Jerónima, was telling her a real litany of obscenities: Shut up, you devil’s lash, fusspot, packsaddle, piece of shit, shriveled woman, idler.’

29The answer crucially depends on the definition of grammaticalization adopted. If the change from literal letanía into polysemic letanía de (used both literally and as a quantifier) is not widespread, examples like (13) remain at the level of metaphorical language use or invited inference possibly triggered by analogical pressure from high-frequency montón de and later the entrenched link between ‘N1 de N2’ and quantity expression. If the quantifying use of letanía de undergoes routinization and even generalization (as in (14) and (15)), the change into a quantifier function has affected the micro-constructional level. Whereas in (14), the catholic frame as well as the concept of ‘repetition’ (cada día ‘each day’) are recalled, letanía de in (15) has abstracted further away from its source semantics. In sum, the shift to functional uses of low-frequency QNs can be regarded as an instance of grammaticalization if it gives way to context-expansion and if one allows grammaticalization to be prompted by analogical thinking.


La letanía de tragedias que causan cada día los malos tratos domésticos ha metido a la Iglesia católica en un nuevo jardín de contradicciones y críticas. (press (newspaper), El País, 24/09/2002)

‘The litany of tragedies which are daily caused by domestic abuse again entangled the Catholic Church in contradictions and criticism.’


Durante siete años la guerra de Argelia había sido como una letanía de sangre sobre nuestros ojos y nuestros oídos. (books, M. Leguineche, El camino más corto. Una trepidante vuelta al mundo en automóvil, 1995)

‘For seven years, the Algerian War had been like a litany of blood on our eyes and ears.’

30Finally, in view of the (strong) collocational ties some QNs (especially the QNs with a rich source semantics) maintain with the N2-collocation, we have repeatedly been suggested that the change BQ constructions are involved in is rather a case of lexicalization. Diachronically, the host-class expansion towards new ‘N2s’ is indeed shown to also proceed via semantic clusters – i.e. clusters of semantically related N2s – which interact with the source semantics of the QN (cf. Verveckken 2012a). By way of illustration, the functional uses of aluvión de in Modern Spanish (1730–1900) typically combined with the clusters of nouns referring to invaders (e.g., bárbaros ‘Barbarian people’, viajeros ‘travelers’), parts of discourse (e.g., palabras ‘words’), (unpleasant) reactions (e.g., censuras ‘censure’) and sensations (e.g., pisadas ‘footsteps’ depicted as the sounds the speaker is hearing). Outside the BQ construction, those four clusters of N2s with aluvión de have of course little to do with each other, but they all license the construal as a ‘stream’ of entities suddenly overwhelming a specific victim or addressee. Over time, the N2-collocates no longer necessarily constitute prototypical instances of a specific cluster by their lexical meaning (cf. bárbaros in the invader-cluster), but they are construed as members of such a cluster by the discourse context (cf. (16) and (17)).


Resumió las opiniones Graziella con esta peregrina observación: "Entre las que aquí vamos, aluvión de mujeres, las hay de todas castas: santas, semi-santas, místicas de moco y baba, románticas, espiritadas; haylas también tiernas de corazón y místicas al revés o contemplativas en la esfera de lo corporal. A las que formamos esta pandilla, la Madre bondadosa nos convierte en vacas y nos deja ir por esas encañadas". (CORDE, book, B. Pérez Galdós, La Primera República, 1911)novel, R.J. Sender, Réquiem por un campesino español, 1953)

‘Graziella summarized the opinions with this ridiculous observation: “Among those of us who are present here, a flood of women, we are from all classes: saints, half-saints, perfectly genuine mystics, romantics, enchanted ones; there are also some who are tenderhearted and mystic inside out or contemplative in the corporal sphere. Those who form this gang, the good-natured Mother transforms us in cows and lets us go by these ravines.’


En nuestro país existe del orden de medio millón de licencias de cicloturistas federados, amén del otro aluvión de esforzados de la ruta en versión no profesional que pueblan las carreteras españolas.. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 06/07/1994)

‘In our country, there are in the order of half a million of licenses for federated touring cyclists, apart from the other flood of road maniacs in a non-professional version that populate the Spanish roads.’

31However, the constrained and semi-productive nature of N2-combinations in the development of load, leads Trousdale (forthc.) to argue that lexicalization is at stake: while load is more ‘grammaticalized’ in the quantifying uses of [loads + ADJ], as in loads better, the same item is more ‘lexicalized’ in the idiomatic expression what a load of rubbish, since [what a load of NP] is restricted to negatively evaluated nouns, especially nonsense and rubbish (Trousdale forthc.: 19-20). In his view (Trousdale 2008: 58), lexicalization leads to idiom-like constructions, while grammaticalization leads to more schematic constructions. Collocational restrictions or preferences for a specific cluster of semantically-related nouns indeed remind of Himmelmann’s definition of lexicalization as a kind of host-class specialization, where a particular node-collocate combination is “singled out” (2004: 36) and becomes the preferred combination, as in hablar de la mar meaning that ‘something is impossible to execute or understand (lit. talk of the sea)’ (in contrast to *discutir/charlar/contar de la mar ‘discuss/chat/tell of the sea’). Likewise, the tendency (or inherent constructional possibility) to display a high degree of semantic persistence (cf. infra) reminds of Brinton & Traugott’s (2005) definition of lexicalization as a change whereby “in certain linguistic contexts speakers use a syntactic construction or word formation as a new contentful form with formal and semantic properties that are not completely derivable or predictable from the constituents of the construction or the word formation pattern” (2005: 96, italics ours). However, the semantic change in lexicalization entails that “a specific semantic component is added, so that the new lexical meaning differs from the former compositional meaning” (Wischer 2000: 364), which does not exactly correspond to the semantic persistence in low-frequency BQ constructions. The persistence refers to the semantic components that live on in the grammaticalized quantifier next to the newer, more functional reading which is foregrounded. Finally, the development of BQ constructions fails to have another characteristic of lexicalization, viz. a decrease in pattern productivity (cf. Verveckken 2012a).

32In other words, instead of approaching the development of BQ constructions in Spanish in terms of mere analogical extension or lexicalization, we suggest to frame the debate in terms of grammaticalization and conceptually-driven analogy. The collocational ties (both with N2 and the wider context) in synchrony, or the semantic clustering (both of N1s and N2s) in diachrony, highlight the importance of the interaction between semantic persistence and analogy. In the next section, we will zoom in on the role of semantic persistence in the use and development of BQ constructions in Spanish.

4. Reconsidering the notion of lexical persistence

  • 14 Especially those on partial re-semanticization, on the clustering of semantically related N2s and o (...)

33As suggested in the previous paragraphs,14 grammaticalized QNs frequently continue to display various semantico-conceptual facets of their original use as a full noun. The meaning of hatajo de cabritos in (4) (repeated here for convenience) cannot be grasped without including various facets of the literal meaning of a herd (such as its lack of individuality, its moving gregariously in one direction, guided by a herd instinct, the inference of mental weakness, etc.) which are transferred to the frame of cabritos ‘little goats’ and is in turn informed and contaminated by the latter. This phenomenon is reminiscent of Hopper's (1991: 22) parameter of lexical persistence. Lexical persistence refers to the tendency of some grammaticalizing items to retain particular features of their original lexical use, which may continue to influence their further developments in various ways.


- Dos cosas, por lo menos, debíais aprender de este hecho, hatajo de cabritos. (novel, L.M. Díez Rodríguez, La fuente de la edad, 1986)

‘Two things, at least, you ought to learn from this event, bunch of stupid kids (lit. little goats).’

4.1 From lexical to conceptual (image) persistence

  • 15 Most definitions encountered for alud, for instance, evoke the image of a snow slide involving viol (...)

34We prefer the notion of conceptual (image) persistence over lexical persistence (see Delbecque & Verveckken 2014), for three reasons at least. First, the lexicographic treatment of the Spanish QNs presents quite severe omissions.15 Second, and more importantly, the notion of conceptual image persistence fits better the cognitive framework we subscribe to. Although Hopper’s (1991) understanding of ‘persistence’ is also semantic in nature, the notion of ‘conceptual (image) persistence’ draws attention to the entire original frame of the item under grammaticalization which is at stake. In other words, with ‘conceptual (image) persistence’, we refer to the persistence of (one or more) facets of the frame or conceptual image (Fillmore 1985) activated by the grammaticalizing item in its lexical meaning (which usually exceeds the definition of the item in reference dictionaries), at distinct levels of schematicity. The case-study on QNs in Spanish for instance shows that the conceptual facets that may persist in the functional uses need not coincide with the foregrounded facets in the original, lexical use. In other words, unprofiled elements of the original frame can become foregrounded in the grammaticalized uses, while involving metaphoric and metonymic extension mechanisms. Third, since ‘lexical’ is often interpreted as opposite to ‘grammatical’ and associated with dictionary entries, we believe that ‘conceptual’ more easily allows to characterize ‘persistence’ as a gradual and ‘unpredictable’ process. The (selection of) conceptual facet(s) that persist(s) in one occurrence need not coincide with the conceptual persistence in other occurrences, since it is co-determined by the particular contextual setting and the N2-collocate (cf. infra). In both examples (18) and (19), aluvión de refers to a group of N2s which suddenly appear all at once, and by doing so, overwhelm a specific entity (the interlocutors in (18), los médicos del cuerpo de sanidad militar en (19)). Yet, in (18), the abruptness and newness of the N2s are particularly prominent: while de repente specifically highlights the suddenness of the appearance, the postmodifying nuevos stresses the idea that the curas did not behave as such before and somehow just came into being. However, in (19), the predicate desbordó todas las previsiones focuses on the unexpected nature of the high number of N2s: the military health services had expected a lot of calls, but the actual number of calls exceeded all expectations. The latter facet is, however, not foregrounded in (18), and is, to some extent, not even compatible with the context. Note also that the ‘abruptness’ and ‘newness’ in (18) pertain to distinct levels of schematicity: since floods are usually suddenly evoked, they generally take the stricken area by surprise; if a set of entities is unexpected, it is highly probably that they are ‘new’. In other words, the ‘newness’ can be seen as an abstraction of the facet ‘abruptness’.


‘Ya no era sólo el padre Antonio el que hablaba descaradamente de “libertad”, de amor, de caridad y de pureza de intenciones. De repente, un aluvión de curas nuevos planteaban soluciones nunca oídas hasta aquellos momentos. (novel, M. Salisachs, La gangrena, 1975)

‘It was no longer only Father Antonio who spoke frankly of “freedom”, of love, of charity and the pureness of intentions. Suddenly, a flood of new priests set out solutions that had never been heard of before.’


A las 9 horas, tres médicos del cuerpo de sanidad militar comenzaron a atender las seis líneas habilitadas del teléfono 91-395-54-85. Sin embargo, el aluvión de llamadas desbordó todas las previsiones (…). (press (newspaper), Diario de Navarra, 09/01/2001).

‘At 9 o’clock, three doctors from the military health force started to operate the six telephone lines supplied for 91-395-54-85. Nevertheless, the flood of phone calls exceeded all expectations  (…).’

35Finally, while Hopper (1991) lists ‘lexical persistence’ among the parameters or criteria to detect incipient grammaticalization, we attribute a facilitating role to the phenomenon of persistence, and rather frame it in terms of ‘mechanism’. We believe indeed that the productivity of the BQ construction resides in the constructional possibility to  exploit the conceptual image of N1. If all QNs would desemanticize drastically and end up as true, absolute quantifiers merely expressing an excessive quantity, there would be no need to extend the paradigm of quantifiers. Yet as stated in Section 3.1, BQ constructions and regular quantifiers differ in two respects at least: BQ constructions assess quantity distinctly in always profiling a set of N2s and highlighting or adding a particular facet of N2. The latter facet usually reflects N1’s original frame. In this sense, BQ constructions can to some extent be compared to ‘relative quantifiers’ (Langacker 1991: 81), where the number of the profiled instance is assessed by implicit reference to a ‘reference mass’ (e.g. all, most, no …). Quantity assessment in the BQs is also achieved by a comparison construal, not to a reference mass including all possible instances of N2, but to the specific configuration or constellation typically associated with N1. In order to assess the size of the group of llamadas 'phone calls' in un alud de llamadas, the speaker metaphorically compares the size of N2 to the volume or configuration typically associated with alud as a lexical item. The amount of phone calls may then be construed as an uninterrupted chain that violently overwhelms the person answering the phone, as if they were snowing him under as a literal avalanche. As a consequence, conceptual image persistence leads to individual configurations of N2 according to the QN selected and the specific context it occurs in.

36The individual conceptualization imposed by different QNs is particularly manifest  when different occurrences of a particular N2 are compared. In examples (20-23), the N2 gente ‘people’ is repeated yet conceived of differently each time: whereas in (20) the people keep on moving in a confused and noisy way, in (21) they are conceptualized as simply brought together without any structuring principle, in (22) they have been orderly recorded in an appointment diary, and in (23) they are presented as vivid persons suddenly appearing and invading the house. It is of course formally fine to replace these BQ constructions by the absolute quantifier mucho/a(s), but these different shades of meaning then get lost. Similarly, conceptual persistence prevents QNs from being mutually interchangeable without (at least slightly) altering the conceptualization of N2. For instance, in (20), tropel de can be replaced by aluvión de (profiling an even larger number of people that continuously enter the room) and montón de (profiling a large, possibly heterogeneous and chaotic mass of people), yet the modification capitaneado por el propio Rey makes the QN tropel de the only coherent choice. For the same reason, QN-specific intensifiers such as incontenible ‘uncontrollable’ for alud or proceloso ‘stormy’ for mar are not susceptible of combining with other QNs.


El PRÍNCIPE se halla acostado y duerme. Arde la chimenea. Súbitamente irrumpe en su cámara un tropel de gente capitaneado por el propio REY [...]. (theatre, C. Muñiz, Tragicomedia del Serenísimo Príncipe Don Carlos, 1980).

‘The prince is lying down and asleep. The chimney is burning. Suddenly a mob of people commanded by the King himself burst into his room [...].’


Usted mismo ha mencionado antes los liberales, después está la ultra derecha, la ultra izquierda, los anarquistas, un montón de gente. (oral, Si yo fuera presidente, 08/11/83, TVE 2)

‘You yourself mentioned the Liberals previously; then there is the extreme right-wing, the extreme left-wing, the anarchists, a lot of people.’


Aproveché para mirar mi agenda, cosa que rara vez hago y, como siempre que la examino, me di cuenta de que había un montón de cosas que debía haber hecho esa semana que no hice y una pila de gente a la que debía haber llamado y no llamé, con lo que he quedado fatal para siempre. (C. Rico Godoy, Cómo ser una mujer y no morir en el intento, 1990)

‘I took the opportunity to look at my diary, something I rarely do and, as always when I check it, I realized that there were a lot of things that I should have done this week which I hadn’t done, and a lot of  (lit. pileof) people that I should have called (but) who I didn’t call.’


A partir de las 9.30 de la noche un aluvión de gente importante comienza a invadir la casa. (novel, J. Cacho Cortés, Asalto al poder. La revolución de Mario Conde, 1988).

‘From 9:30 p.m. onwards a flood of important people started to enter the house.’

  • 16 Although probably many native speakers do not see any difference in meaning between un alud de N2 a (...)

37Since the QN is the only element changing in the binominal constructions from (20)–(23), it is fair to claim that the variation in the N1-slot is responsible for the difference in construal of N2. Since the conceptualization imposed on N2 reflects the QN’s original source semantics, the different construals of gente from (20) to (23) do not come as a surprise: tropel, montón, aluvión and pila have etymologically little in common. The matter becomes more intricate when comparing near-synonyms such as alud de and aluvión de (Section 4.3).16

4.2 Linguistic reflexes of conceptual persistence in the BQ constructions

38Although the semantic interpretation and description of QNs in the previous paragraphs by definition leaves room for interpretation and discussion, the importance attributed to conceptual persistence in the grammaticalization of the BQ construction can be further justified by its formal characteristics. In the present section, we will argue that conceptual persistence can account for apparent inconsistencies in the morpho-syntactic make-up of the BQ construction. In Section 3.2, the partial nature of the decategorialization of the BQ construction, i.e., its formal persistence, was conciliated with grammaticalization in function of the severe co-selection restrictions. This section will show that the QN’s modification, its determiner pattern and the variation in verb agreement are conceptually motivated. What is more, as long as the co-selection patterns are motivated, BQ constructions are unlikely to engage in routinization processes such as phonological attrition, in contrast to English alotta, helluva, French beaucoup or Dutch heleboel for instance.

4.2.1 Fluctuation in the modification pattern

  • 17 As opposed to canonical quantifiers which do not combine with pre- or postmodifying adjectives: e.g (...)

39The presence of adjectives modifying N1, which is a typical nominal feature,17 seems to confirm a certain degree of formal persistence. Yet the retained ‘noun-ness’ is only partial, since the paradigm of premodifying adjectives is certainly not an open-ended nor a productive one, yet constrained by structural and conceptual selection restrictions. In (24), for instance, it is perfectly fine to add the adjectives verdadero ‘true’ and imparable ‘unstoppable’, which intensify the quantifying reading. N1 does not admit, however, relational adjectives (e.g., local ‘local’) nor descriptive adjectives (e.g., acuoso ‘watery’). Further, no additional absolute quantifier can be inserted in the BQ construction (*tres, *millares de).


Recibí un alud [verdadero / imparable / *local / *acuoso] de [*tres / *millares de] llamadas.

‘I received an [*true / unstoppable / local / *watery] avalanche of [*three /*millions of] calls’.

  • 18 The only postmodifying adjectives observed are past participle forms with complements, which necess (...)

40In addition, the intensifying adjectives are restricted to the prenominal slot:18 while it is perfectly fine to say un verdadero alud de llamadas ‘a true avalanche of calls’, postmodifying adjectives as in *un alud verdadero de llamadas are not observed in the corpus. This tendency is functionally and conceptually motivated: Delbecque (1990: 374-376) shows that by preposing the adjective, the property attributed to the noun is presented as unquestionable and presuppositional knowledge, whereas the postmodifying adjective invites a comparison of the modified noun to other instances of its type for the property expressed by the adjective. Yet in functional uses of un alud de, external comparison is excluded: no reference to other avalanches can be made, since in un alud de llamades ‘an avalanche of calls’ the ‘avalanche’ has no referential value of its own.

41Besides, the kind of possible qualifications is highly predictable and to a large extent QN-related. Table 2 presents the adjective variation per use per QN and shows that alud, letanía and especially aluvión have a more extensive adjective paradigm in their quantifying use. The productive adjective co-selection pattern in functional uses thus corresponds to the QNs with a particularly rich source semantics. Although montón also presents 6 adjective-combinations (and 11 occurrences in absolute terms), the proportion is rather small since montón de is a high-frequency item. Further, in the case of montón and mogollón, the limited number of adjectives can even be considered an additional signal of an advanced stage of grammaticalization.

alud (65)


catastrófico ‘disastrous’ (1), provocado ‘provoked, elicited’ (1)



verdadero ‘real’ (2), encauzado ‘channelled’ (1), imparable ‘unstoppable’ (1), incontenible ‘uncontainable’ (1), producido ‘produced’ (1), riquísimo ‘very rich’ (1)



aluvión (132)





verdadero ‘real’(3), gran ‘big’ (2), auténtico ‘authentic’ (1), importante ‘important’ (1), inmenso ‘immense’ (1), nuevo ‘new’ (1), pleno ‘full’ (1),  previsible ‘foreseeable’ (1), previsto ‘foreseen’ (1), pasado ‘past, bygone’ (1)


semejante ‘similar’ (1)

barbaridad (9)




hatajo (13)


medio ‘half’






letanía (19)





antológica ‘anthological’ (1), cadenciosa ‘rythmical’ (1), dulce ‘sweet’ (1), extenso ‘lengthy, wide’ (1), innumerable ‘innumerable’ (1),  larga ‘long’ (1), cansina ‘weary’ (1)



mogollón (45)


buen ‘good’ (1)

‘mess, fuss’



montón (340)



enorme ‘enormous’ (2), determinado ‘certain’ (1), gran ‘big’ (1),  hermoso ‘beautiful, lovely’ (1), pequeño ‘little’ (1), solo ‘only, single’ (1)


buen ‘good’ (7), ingente ‘huge’ (1), semejante ‘similar’ (1), súbito e efímero ‘sudden and ephemeral’ (1), confuso ‘confused’ (1)


impreciso ‘vague, imprecise’ (1), inmenso ‘immense’ (1), simple ‘simple’ (1)

pila (17)



enorme ‘enormous’ (3), abultada ‘huge’ (1), compuesta de ‘composed of’ (1), construida ‘construed’ (1), gran ‘big’ (1), grueso ‘big, thick’ (1)




depositada ‘placed, put, deposited’ (1)






buen ‘good’ (1), inmenso ‘immense’ (1), múltiple ‘multiple’ (1)



  • 19 The number of occurrences attested is mentioned between brackets.

Table 2. Variation in the premodification pattern per QN per reading. H stands for ‘head’, Q for ‘quantifier’ and S for ‘(two-way) specifier’ 19

42Yet the constraints on the adjectival pattern are mainly linked to the reading of the QNs. Strictly speaking, the literal or head uses are free to combine with any type of adjective (cf. Di Tullio & Kornfeld 2008: 2). However, except maybe for montón and pila, the head-use isn’t prone to combine with premodifying adjectives. This tendency is probably due to the fact that binominal patterns by definition include a type-specification of N1, viz. the prepositional phrase. Likewise, only few instances are observed where specifier uses have a premodifying adjective to N1. Quantifying uses seem to combine slightly more easily with premodifying adjectives, yet only with a restricted set, viz. with intensifying adjectives (e.g., the recurrent gran ‘big’, inmenso ‘immense’, enorme ‘enormous’, verdadero ‘real’, semejante ‘similar’, buen ‘good’). In addition, adjectives profiling a specific facet of the QN’s conceptual image, such as imparable ‘unstoppable’ in the case of alud, can be observed, since they intensify a specific facet of the QN’s frame. The latter adjective-combinations are of course QN-related: it is highly doubtful that other QNs than alud or aluvión combine with imparable ‘unstoppable’, incontenible ‘uncontainable’, (im)previsible ‘(un)foreseeable’, etc., or other QNs than letanía with antológica ‘anthological’, cadenciosa ‘cadenced’ or cansina ‘wearisome’.

4.2.2 Fluctuation in the determiner pattern

43Determiner alternation is a typical noun-feature as well. Since N1 has head-status in the literal uses, this use is expected to present more variation as to the N1-determiner. In the functional uses, N2 has head-status and the sequence made up by the determiner to N1, the N1 itself and the preposition is considered to quantify/specify N2 as a single chunk.



























































































Table 3. Distribution of determiner variation per reading. Legend: Indef = Indefinite; Def = Definite; Dem = Demonstrative; Poss = Possessive; Excl = Exclamative.

44However, three major tendencies in the determiner alternation can be derived from Table 3. First, generalizing over the different readings, the indefinite determiner is the preferred combination. A fine-grained qualitative analysis has shown that the topicalized nature of the BQ construction is precondition to the use of definite determiners. The preference for the indefinite determiner un(a) is discourse-pragmatically motivated as well, since it goes hand in hand with the typical rhematic status of the BQ construction (cf. Mihatsch 2010). While in (25) the indefinite determiner is the standard variant, the definite la in (26) is in line with the thematic value of N2 (not some of the colleagues, yet all of them) and the possessive su in (27) converts the relentlessness into a general characteristic of Arrabal’s message. The discourse-pragmatic character of the determiner variation becomes particularly obvious by the substitution test: if the BQ construction would be replaced by a determiner, it would continue to belong to the same class, viz., the plural indefinite (zero marked) or unas (note that unas combines several determiner interpretations) in (25), the plural definite las in (26) and the plural possessive sus in (27), which identifies Arrabal as the person pronouncing the litany. In other words, although the determiner agrees morphologically with N1, it semantically scopes over N2. Note also that the variant ‘no determiner’ is mainly QN-related and limited to the quantifying uses of mogollón de.


 Un bombardeo informativo va imprimiendo a diario en nuestro subconsciente una letanía de frases, que, (…). (press (newspaper), ABC, 22/03/1996)

‘An informative bombardment is stamping every day a litany of sentences in our subconsciousness, which, (…)’.

…va imprimiendo en nuestro subconsciente [Ø / unas] frases que…() ‘[Ø/some] sentences…’


 Le he desgranado la letanía de colegas que le han precedido : Eduardo Móner, Roberto García Calvo, (…). (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 15/12/1996)

‘I have rattled off the litany of colleagues that preceded him: Eduardo Móner, Roberto García Calvo, (…). ’

… he desgranado las colegas que le han precedido: … ‘the colleagues…’


¿Se trata de un hombre y una muñeca? ¿De un pelele y una mujer? -escribe Arrabal en su cadenciosa letanía de interrogantes – ... (press (newspaper), ABC, 13/09/1996)

‘Is it about a man or a doll? About a wimp or a woman? –  Arrabal writes in his rhythmic litany of questions – …’

…escribe Arrabal en sus interrogantes – … ‘in his questions…’

45The second observation concerns the amount of variation: Table 3 illustrates that the head uses do not present more structural variation than the quantifying uses, which even display one combination that does not occur in the literal uses, viz. the exclamative ¡qué! ‘what a’ (cf. 28); this form marks the presence of some illocutionary force (surprise, enthusiasm, confusion, perplexity, indignation etc.) and maximizes both the quantity and the quality of the (type of) properties of the nominal entity it modifies. In this context, the QN may seem pleonastic, since the construction without QN is also registered as such (cf. Alonso-Cortés 1999: 3998). However, whereas qué de recuerdos (29) makes a huge number of impressive memories appear as a disparate mass, the QN in (28) additionally conveys the idea that to the speaker they form an aggregate, comparable to an unordered stack, albeit in a vague and abstract way, given that montón ‘heap, pile’ is the most grammaticalized of the QNs (Verveckken 2012b). Yet, the untidiness and immobility which characterize its source semantics nicely fit in with the remote and untouched image of the N2 entities (‘memories’ from ‘thirty, thirty-five years’ ago).

46The third observation concerns the tendency of demonstratives to be equally frequent throughout the corpus and to occur relatively more frequently in (two-way)-specificier uses. Again, this distribution pattern is motivated since, on the one hand, the (two-way) specifier use primarily serves to characterize N2 and, on the other, demonstrative determiners may also reveal the stance of the speaker (see Delbecque 2011, 2013) in addition to its typical deictic use: besides signaling the speaker’s pointing to the bunch of crooks, ese ‘this’ marks the speaker’s endorsement of the categorization. Again, the categorization or quality assessment is only possible because the BQ construction does not go down the desemanticization path.


– Veros vestidas así… ¡Qué montón de recuerdos!  (theatre, S. Moncada, Siempre en otoño, 1993)

‘ – To see you dressed like this… What a heap of memories!’


¡Qué de recuerdos! ‘How many (lit. what of) memories!’


No pierdas tiempo en maldiciones. Enfílame a ese racimo de bandidos y pon tu pincho al servicio del rey. (theatre, F. Nieva, La carroza de plomo candente. Ceremonia negra en un acto, 1976).

‘Don’t waste time in curses. Get me that bunch of crooks and put your gun at the king’s service.’

47Given that the determiner pattern is useful and rooted in the discourse integration of the BQ construction, the alternation is not likely to be given up by native speakers in the near future.

4.2.3 Fluctuation in verb agreement

48The third domain where formal variation is motivated concerns verbal agreement in those cases where the BQ construction functions as the clausal subject. In principle, the verb is considered to agree with the head of the construction (see Aarts 1998, Keizer 2007). Agreement with N1 in singular thus signals the QN's head status (as in (31), bracketed as follows [despertó3P.SG + undet. + aludN1-head + [de + piedrasN2]]), while agreement with N2 in plural gives proof of the quantifying reading of the QN (and the resulting head status of N2, as in (32), bracketed [[undet. aluviónQN de]quantifier+ personasN2-head  + se le acercan3P.PL]).


La despertó [3SG] un alud de piedras. (novel, P. Faner, Flor de sal, 1986)

‘An avalanche of stones woke her up.’


Cuando Mossén Ballarín (Barcelona, 1920) sale de los estudios de televisión donde ha sido entrevistado, un aluvión de personas se le acercan [3PL]. (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 15/06/1996)

‘When Mossén Ballarín  (Barcelona, 1920) leaves the television studios where he was interviewed, a flood of persons approach him.’

49Corpus data (see Verveckken & Cornillie 2012) confirm that plural agreement is mainly attested in combination with quantifying uses. Yet, the reverse is not true. There are also cases of unexpected verb agreement in singular despite an obvious quantifying interpretation of N1, as in (33). In other words, quantifying uses are not necessarily, nor primarily, associated with plural verb agreement: of 74 quantifying instances attested, 46 combine with singular verb agreement. The conceptualization of N1 is found to be the most stable factor in explaining verb agreement. In (33), the singular appears in a context which metaphorically exploits various dimensions of alud’s frame: the flow of new models appears suddenly (saliera a la luz), it cannot be stopped (no ha impedido), it goes on (siguen empeñadas) filling all possible gaps (todos los huecos). The N1-profile is further enhanced by means of the intensifier auténtico. The image of a literal flood thus persists to the extent that agreement with N1 feels more natural again. In other words, singular verb agreement in manifestly functional uses correlates with a high degree of conceptual persistence, and is very unlikely to occur in contexts that only display a low degree of conceptual persistence such as (32)).


La incertidumbre no ha impedido que en Ginebra saliera [3SG] a la luz un auténtico aluvión de modelos nuevos: las marcas siguen empeñadas en ocupar todos los huecos del mercado para ampliar las ventas y no dar ventajas a la competencia. (press (newspaper), El País, 08/03/2003)

‘The uncertainty has not prevented an authentic flood of new models to come out in Geneva: the brands keep determined to occupy all the slots of the market in order to increase the sales and not to give advantages to the competition.’

50The foregoing discussion shows that conceptual image persistence sheds more light on the fluctuations in the co-selection pattern of grammaticalized BQ constructions: persisting ‘noun’ features are highly constrained and conceptually driven. In the next section, we will provide additional contextual evidence for the impact of conceptual image persistence by zooming in on subtle differences in the minimal pair aluvión de vs. alud de.

4.3 From conceptual image persistence to QN-related conceptualizations of N2

51Examples (20)-(23) above, containing distinct QNs for the repeated N2 gente, already suggested that the difference in conceptualization stems from the QN’s semantics, since the QN was the only varying element. In this section, we will add further empirical support for the QN-related conceptualizations, by zooming in on the minimal pair aluvión de vs. alud de. If differences in contexts of usage can be detected for these QNs whose source semantics are closely related, then this can be taken as evidence for the proper, individual conceptualization of the N2 entities.

4.3.1 QN-related conceptual images

  • 20 We thank Nuria Herrera Coronas, Lydia Fernandez Pereda and Pedro Gras Manzano for their extensive a (...)

52Strictly speaking, aluvión refers to a flood (possibly caused by heavy rain) and alud depicts a snow slide. Both pertain to the domain of natural phenomena (disasters in this particular case) which are beyond human control. When it comes to their quantitative use, the native speakers that we consulted see only little difference in receiving unaluvión de or un alud de críticas ‘criticisms’, yet they unanimously agree on differences in the contexts of usage.20

  • 21 The main verb, e.g., se le cayeron encima ‘they fell on him’, le vino encima ‘it came upon him’, an (...)

53Both aluvión de and alud de are used with an overwhelmingly large and diverse number of N2-entities which they construe as arising suddenly and all at once, out of nothing, mostly triggered by an external cause (mainly with aluvión de) and generally resulting in drastic consequences (mainly with alud de). The N2 entities are conceptualized as unstoppable and antagonistic forces directed towards one single victim or affected person, as if they were inundating, overwhelming this person literally.21 Consequently, N2 often refers to things of unpleasant nature (in particular in combination with alud de). In (34), the new companies suddenly arrive (súbitamente, de repente) and seem to inundate (inundate) the country. From the fact that they fill the newspapers' cover pages (relegando a los politicos a las páginas interiores de los períodicos) and from the contrast with the previous situation of unemployment, the number of new companies can be inferred to be impressively high. The agricultural and industrial products in (35) are equally conceived as suddenly (repentino) arising, inundating the speaker (inundados) and overwhelming the farmers and businessmen (preparados para competir). This sudden dramatic increase in products is brought about by an external cause (fruto de) and has drastic consequences.  


Un país tradicionalmente parado, se ponía súbitamente en movimiento y experimentaba en primavera una inesperada floración de tipos y de ideas nuevas, algunas de las cuales madurarán y darán fruto en el otoño e invierno siguientes. Un aluvión de nuevos negocios, y nuevos empresarios, desconocidos meses atrás, parece inundar de repente la escena nacional, relegando a los políticos a las páginas interiores de los periódicos. (book, J. Cacho Cortés, Asalto al poder. La revolución de Mario Conde, 1988)

‘A country which was traditionally at a standstill got suddenly on the move and experienced in springtime an unexpected flowering of types and new ideas, some of which came to fruition and bore fruits in the following fall or winter. A flood of new business, and new businessmen, which only some months before were unknown, seems to suddenly inundate the national scene, relegating the politicians to the inside pages of the newspapers.


¿No nos hemos visto "inundados" por un repentino alud de productos agrícolas e industriales, fruto del radical desarme arancelario, ante el que ni nuestros agricultores ni nuestros empresarios estaban preparados para competir? (book, J.P. Ramírez Codina, David contra Goliat. Jaque mate al felipinismo, 1995)

‘Did we not see ourselves “inundated” by a sudden avalanche of agricultural and industrial products, a result of the radical dismantling of custom barriers, in front of which nor our farmers nor our businessmen were prepared to compete?’

  • 22 Since all three native speakers are Spanish language teachers or linguists, their intuition might s (...)

54The contexts of (34) and (35) look similar at first sight: both evoke an unexpected and spectacular economic development. Still, replacing the respective QNs by their near-synonym sounds awkward according to the native speakers interviewed.22 The fatal nature of the consequences (of the sudden appearance of the new products) in (34) turns alud de in the only appropriate QN, since alud de is perceived as more decisive, suggesting irreversible consequences. While with aluvión de the N2 entities are equally considered to overwhelm the so-called victim, the latter is usually considered an antagonist of equal value, able to fight back (cf. the type of verbs in the ‘reaction’-cluster, see infra). Such a positive entailment is incongruent with the specification in (35) that the farmers were not prepared to compete.

  • 23 The set of conceptual facets that could be profiled in specific instances, have been established af (...)

55The conceptual images projected by the QNs can be broken down in several facets, presenting distinct levels of schematicity: ‘all at once’, ‘all of a sudden’, ‘uncontrollable’, ‘overwhelming’, etc. Figure 1 visualizes the conceptual image, i.e. the set of conceptual facets that may be profiled when using aluvión de as a quantifier.23 The left-most column presents the less schematic or more contentful facets (describing a internal quality of the N2-entities, the facets in the middle and right-most columns are abstractions or more schematic facets (often a configurational characteristic of N2): if a certain entity arrives all of a sudden, it is probably unexpected and stands high chances to be new. The facets are not necessarily equally profiled, since the particular contextual setting and the co-selection pattern co-determine which (set of) facet(s) get(s) highlighted. Since aludde and aluvión de are near-synonymous, the conceptual images or sets of conceptual facets resemble each other. In order to fit the image of alud de, two minor modifications are in order, viz.: (1) facet (h) – profiling the N2-entities as arriving from different sources at the same time – does not appear; (2) facet (f) – which refers to the insistent or decisive nature of the N2-entities – is more prominent in the case of alud de.

Figure 1. Conceptual facets in the conceptual image of aluvión de

  • 24 Usage context should be understood contentwise (i.e. contexts picturing politicians receiving criti (...)

56The remainder of this section highlights three pertinent differences between the conceptual images evoked by aluvión de and alud de, viz., (i) the orientation of the forces, (ii) the construal of the affected person, and (iii) the gradualness of the arrival. First, the orientation of the forces or dynamic entities crucially differs. In line with the source semantics of aluvión, the N2 entities are conceptualized as coming from different sides or starting points at the same time ("overflowing" very much like water does, viz., from all parts). The quantity assessment by alud de, in contrast, evokes a common starting point for the N2 entities. Examples (36) and (37) both illustrate a frequent usage context24 of these near-synonymous QNs: a politician receives a lot of criticism for having made a polemic statement or taken a questionable measure, and afterwards feels obliged to react to the criticism in an attempt to save his face. The subtle differences brought about by the choice of the QN reside in the conceptualization of all parties settling in the opposition as one single block in (37), whereas in (36) various government spokespersons are conceived of as emitting their proper criticism, possibly at different moments in time. This tendency does not imply that the opposition in (37) merely consists of one party nor that all parties expressed their criticism at the same time. The quantification by aludde simply conceptualizes them as one criticizing entity, which makes the criticizing reaction appear as even more decisive. Generalizing over the conceptual facets that can live on in alud de and aluvión de, Figure 2 visualizes the starting point(s) of the N2 entities and their orientation towards the affected entity.

Figure 2. The starting point(s) of the N2 entities quantified by alud de and aluvión de


Diversos portavoces del Ejecutivo subrayaron el compromiso de Bonn de cumplir los acuerdos con los socios europeos y garantizaron la solidez de la moneda única. Scharping volvió a la carga ayer con una entrevista concedida al diario “Bild”. Ante el aluvión de críticas recibidas, sostuvo que “el SPD debe alertar sobre los posibles riesgos de la introducción de la moneda europea. Ese es nuestro deber”. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 02/11/1995)

‘Various spokespersons of the Government stressed Bonn's commitment to keep the agreements with the European partners and guaranteed the solidity of the common currency. Scharping returned to the attack yesterday with an interview conceded to the newspaper “Bild”. In view of the flood of criticisms received, he sustained the idea that “the SPD has to alert about the possible risks of introducing the European currency. That’s our duty”.’


Su discurso, adornado con alabanzas a Irlanda por rechazar el Tratado de Niza y el anuncio de su intención de eliminar los delitos de injurias a la bandera y ataque a la unidad del Estado, desató ayer un alud de críticas en la oposición. (press (newspaper), El Norte de Castilla, 19/06/2001)

‘His speech, embellished with words of praise on  Ireland for rejecting the Treaty of Nice and his announcement of the intention to eliminate the crimes of insulting the flag and of attacking the State’s unity unleashed yesterday an avalanche of criticism in the opposition.’

  • 25 To avoid possible misunderstandings, the differences in conceptualization described here are to be (...)

57Since the effect of the N2 entities is conceived of as more decisive when quantified by alud de, it does not come as a surprise that alud de and aluvión de combine with distinct construals of the affected entity as well. The difference in the conceptualization of the affected entity is particularly reflected in the QN’s co-selection pattern attested in the corpus (see infra Tables 4 and 5). For the same reason, aluvión de is observed in the corpus in combination with the preposition a pesar de ‘in spite of’ – weakening the impact on the victim, as in (38) – and gracias a ‘thanks to’ – yielding a positive entailment, as in (39), whereas the combinations a pesar del alud de N2 or gracias al alud deN2 are not attested. In (38), in spite of the (negative) reactions on his previous statements, the bishop did not change his mind and kept on appealing for a dialogue. In (39), the N2 entities or rays of sunshine are perceived of as producing a welcome effect on the ‘victim’, viz. Ibiza. Similar construals are unusual for alud de, which generally combines with a victim crushed by the extraordinary number of N2-entities, or about to be beaten in the near future.25


A pesar del aluvión de reacciones que han provocado sus declaraciones, el obispo de San Sebastián insistió en que la única manera inicial de buscar la pacificación del País Vasco es sentarse a dialogar con los dirigentes de la banda terrorista, (…). (press (newspaper, ABC, 04/1/1997).

In spite of the flood of reactions that his statements have provoked, the bishop of San Sebastián insisted that the only initial way of searching a pacification of the Bask Country is to sit down to dialogue with the leaders of the terrorist band, (…).’


Ibiza está que arde, pero no por lo anterior, sino gracias al aluvión de rayos solares que se abate sobre cubierta. (press (newspaper), ABC, 10/07/1988)

‘Ibiza is on fire, but not because of what has been previously mentioned, but thanks to the flood of sunbeams that falls down on the surface.’

  • 26 The temporal specification (tras 'after') further confirms that the criticisms were decisive for th (...)

58Another major difference concerns the gradualness of N2’s arrival. Alud de presents the sudden appearance of N2 as occupying only a limited time slot. The quantity assessment by aluvión de, in contrast, is typically associated with a sense of continuity, which endows the QN with a wide aspectual potential. In (40), the judge's decision to cancel the press conference is tantamount to admitting that the criticisms have attained their goal and that the battle is over, so to say.26 In (41), issuing an ‘avalanche’ of denials is presented as a governmental strategy (possibly repeated on other occasions): appearing as bounded, with a clear starting and end point, it forces the interlocutor to process the denials as a whole. In contrast, producing un aluvión is not necessarily delineated, as is corroborated by contextual indices in (42) and (43). In (42), both mientras tanto and the predicate continúa suggest an ongoing process. In (43), the aluvión of phone calls extends over various days (los primeros días de enero), with an average number of calls per day. By way of comparison, using alud de in (43) would have suggested that the calls were over immediately after the first days of January.


Se da la circunstancia de que la entrevista publicada ayer fue concedida a "ABC" el sábado, el mismo día que el magistrado decidió no llevar a cabo una rueda de prensa que él mismo había convocado en la Audiencia Nacional, tras el alud de críticas producido contra él la semana pasada. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 16/10/1995)

‘It so happened that the interview published yesterday was conceded to "ABC" on Saturday, the same day that the judge decided not to hold a press conference that he had himself convoked at the National Court, after the avalanche of critiques produced against him last week.’


El proceder seguido por el Gobierno es el de producir un alud de supuestos desmentidos y acusaciones de falsedad, formulados en un tono de aparente firmeza para crear confusión. En unos casos, refuta detalles nimios y en otros, da muestras de clara mala fe. (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 10/11/1994)

‘The Government’s way of acting is to produce an avalanche of false denials and accusations of falseness, formulated in a tone of apparent firmness to create confusion. On some occasions, they refute trivial details, on other occasions, they give proof of bad faith. ’


Mientras tanto, continúa el aluvión de mamíferos clonados o de experimentos con clones. (press (newspaper), El país, 28/01/1998)

‘In the meantime, the flood of cloned mammals or of experiments with clones goes on.’


Los primeros días de enero, fue tal el aluvión de llamadas que sufrió dicha compañía, que llegaron a puntas de 100.000  llamadas en un día, con una media de más de 40.000. (press (newspaper), La Razón, 15/01/2002)

‘The first days of January, the flood of calls that the abovementioned company suffered, was that high that they reached peaks of 100.000 calls in one day, with an average of more than 40.000.’

4.3.2 QN-related co-selection patterns

59The commonalities as well as the differences in the conceptualization conveyed by the near-synonyms aluvión de and alud de are reflected in their combinatorial patterns, more specifically in the verbs and right collocates they frequently combine with.

  • 27 Aluvión de N2 also co-occurs with verbs of ‘expectation’, thereby highlighting the victim's vantage (...)

60First, there is a large overlap in verb combinations. Against their common background of profiling the sudden, usually provoked, arrival of dynamic (antagonist) N2 entities which take the stricken area or ‘victim’ by surprise with drastic consequences, it is no surprise that aluvión de and alud de frequently combine with the same clusters of semantically-related verbs: as shown in Table 4, they both combine with verbs of reception, verbs of triggering, verbs of re-action, verbs specifying the drastic consequences, and verbs reflecting the source semantics of the QN, though in different proportions.27

Alud de

Aluvión de

V’s of reception

(5 occ.) recibir ‘receive’

(12 occ.) recibir ‘receive’, conocer ‘know, experience’, ofrecer ‘offer’

V’s of triggering

(12 occ.) provocar ‘provoke’, producir ‘produce’, ocasionar ‘bring about’, disparar ‘shoot’, desatar ‘unleash’, descargar ‘fire’, lanzar launch’

(10 occ.) provocar ‘provoke’, atraer ‘attract’, levantar ‘raise’

V’s of re-action

(5 occ.) frenar ‘brake’, compensar ‘compensate’, ceder el paso a ‘step aside for’, soportar ‘stand’, aguantar ‘take, endure’

(19 occ.) reaccionar react’, volver a la carga ‘return to the attack’, enfrentarse ‘face’, atender ‘attend’, parar ‘stop’

V’s pointing to drastic consequences

(17 occ.) obligar ‘force’, quedar + ADJ ‘remain, become ADJ’, hacer que +INF ‘cause’, afectar ‘affect’

(8 occ.) hacer ‘make, cause’, quedar +ADJ ‘turn, become ADJ’, impedir ‘prevent’, venir determinado por ‘be determined by’

V’s reflecting the QN’s source semantics

(12 occ.) colapsarse ‘collapse’, hundir ‘sink, destroy’, caer ‘fall’, volcar sobre ‘tip, dump onto’, invadir ‘invade’

(25 occ.) sobrecargar ‘overload’, llenar ‘fill’, vertirse sobre ‘flow over’, caer sobre ‘fall over’, venir encima a ‘overtake’, sobrevenir ‘strike’, invadir ‘invade’, inundar ‘inundate’, perturbar ‘disturb’

Table 4. Verb clusters associated with aluvión de and alud de

61The most frequent combinations for both QNs are recibir ‘receive’ un aluvión/alud de N2 (yielding 10 and 5 occurrences respectively, cf. (24) and (36)) and provocar ‘provoke’ un aluvión/alud de N2 (with 8 and 4 occurrences, cf. (44) and (45)).


Los recientes sobresaltos del sistema financiero argentino, con la quiebra de un banco y la intervención estatal de otros tres bancos más, ha provocado un aluvión de visitas a Europa de los responsables económicos. (press (newspaper), El País, 1980)

‘The recent shocks in Argentina's financial system, with the breakdown of a bank and the state intervention for three more banks, has provoked a flood of visits to Europe from the responsible economists.’


Es su obstinación por acabar la legislatura, careciendo del apoyo social necesario para ello, lo que puede provocar que esto termine como el rosario de la aurora y un alud de nuevos escándalos y revelaciones le obligue a agachar infamantemente la cabeza. (P.J. Ramírez Codina, David contra Goliat. Jaque mate al felipismo, 1995).

‘It is his stubbornness to finish the term, without having the social support required to do so, which could well make that this ends in disaster and that an avalanche of new scandals and revelations forces him to defamatorily bend his head.’

  • 28 It is not worthwhile dwelling on the exact number of combinations, since the proportion varies not (...)

62The major, though subtle, differences28 surface in the lexical richness of the verbs of triggering and in the type of re-action verbs. First, the cluster of verbs meaning ‘trigger’ displays more lexical variety in the case of alud de, which is in line with the importance alud’s original frame attributes to the decisiveness of the N2-entities. Second, the verbs expressing some kind of reaction by the participant affected by the aluvión/alud de N2’s) profile a different type of affected entity: whereas the verbs patterning with alud evoke a beatable victim, who undergoes the alud de N2s, the verbs combining with aluvión frequently depict an antagonist of equal value, who faces the aluvión de N2s. One final observation does not concern the verbal predicate in the first place, but rather the participles (sometimes preceded by e.g., quedarse ‘remain, become’ or another (pseudo-)copular verb) modifying alud’s victim: in over a dozen cases they highlight its weakness (e.g., sepultado ‘burried’, inundado ‘inundated’, preocupado ‘worried’, paralizado ‘paralyzed’, etc.). The focus on the affected entitiy’s state is in line with alud’s tendency to produce fatal consequences. The remaining verb-clusters do not illustrate more differences in meaning or use of alud de and aluvión de, yet confirm the conceptual images established in Section 4.3.1.

  • 29 Needless to say, the clusters of verbs/nouns observed easily fit in with the conceptual images of a (...)

63The collocational patterns to the right similarly reflect aluvión’s and alud’s original frame. Table 5 presents the attested N2-combinations, again organized in clusters of semantically related elements.29 In line with the enhanced antagonism profiled by alud, alud de leaves less room for positive or neutral N2s. For both QNs, the most important N2 cluster denotes verbal reactions such as llamadas ‘phone calls’, felicitaciones ‘felicitations’, palabras ‘words’, etc., which are conceptualized as a large number of N2s addressed by a certain addresser to an addressee (the affected entity), generally as a reaction to impactful events. An important subcluster which groups ‘negative verbal reactions’ such as protestas ‘protests’, acusaciones ‘accusations’, quejas ‘complaints’, etc., constitutes for alud de the almost exclusive subcluster of verbal reactions (15 of 19 occurrences). Interestingly, the most frequent N2 observed for both QNs is críticas ‘criticisms’ (with 13 and 4 occurrences respectively). The second most frequent cluster for aluvión consists of people invading the victim’s domain or interrupting him, such as turistas ‘tourists’, colonizadores ‘colonists’, inmigrantes ‘immigrants’, etc., while alud de only combines with intruder N2s on four occasions. The second most frequent N2 cluster for alud contains political or economic actions or products, such as productos ‘products’, proyectos ‘projects’, ofertas ‘offers’, elecciones ‘elections’, negocios ‘business deals’, nombramientos ‘appointments’, escándalos ‘scandals’, pactos ‘pacts’, etc., and is also frequently associated with aluvión de N2.

Alud de

Aluvión de

verbal reactions

(19 occ.) llamadas ‘phone calls’, carcajadas ‘loud laughter’

negative: (15 of 19 occ.) hipocresías ‘hipocrisies’, insultos ‘insults’, críticas ‘criticism’

(49 occ.) llamadas ‘phone calls’, cartas ‘letters’, palabras ‘words’

negative: (24 of 49 occ.) críticas ‘criticism’, quejas ‘complaints’, protestas, ‘protests’


(4 occ.) clientes ‘clients’, tíos y tías ‘uncles and aunts’, corresponsales ‘correspondents’

(21 occ.) enfermos ‘sick people’, colonizadores ‘colonizers’, turistas ‘tourists’, extranjeros ‘strangers’

(sources of) information

(10 occ.) noticias ‘news’, propaganda ‘propaganda’, informaciones ‘informations’

(7 occ.) datos ‘data’, documentos ‘documents’, páginas web ‘web pages’

politic/economic actions or products

(14 occ.) pactos ‘pacts’, prohibiciones ‘bannings’, demandas ‘demands’, normas ‘norms’

money: (1 of 14 occ.) dinero ‘money’

(29 occ.) productos ‘products’, offertas ‘offers’, proyectos ‘projects’, elecciones ‘elections’, cambios ‘changes’

money: (4 of 29 occ.) dinero ‘money’, anticipos ‘advances’, fondos ‘funds’

abstract N2s (usually experiences)

(6 occ.) ideas ‘ideas’, miradas ‘looks’, voces ‘voices’, imágenes ‘images’, sentimientos ‘feelings’

(5 occ.) pensamiento ‘thoughts’, hermosura ‘beauty’


(12 occ.)

(21 occ.)

Table 5. N2 clusters associated with alud de and aluvión de

64It goes without saying that the internal focus on antagonism or cause-reaction-consequence correlations and the potential to construe oversized masses of N2 appearing out of nothing make aluvión and alud particularly appropriate quantifiers in contexts picturing political and economic events, where participants are usually diametrically opposed and remarkable phenomena concern spectacular growth or inflation (14 of 65 functional uses of alud de, 29 of 132 functional uses of aluvión de). The final shared important N2 cluster contains the N2s referring to some source of information, such as informaciones ‘information’, noticias ‘news’, páginas web ‘web pages’, canales ‘channels’, etc. The remaining N2s, which at first sight seem to fall outside the above mentioned clusters, appear in contexts that also make them being conceived of as generally unpleasant, dynamic entities which overtake the affected entity by surprise, as in (46).


Tras arrasar en Estados Unidos, la medicina alternativa extiende sus tentáculos en España. (…) Al otro lado del Atlántico, el boom es de tal calibre que en algunas zonas del país cerca del 50% de los pacientes recurre a estas prácticas. (…) Como era de esperar, Internet también refleja este interés social, con un verdadero aluvión de páginas web sobre muchas de las medicinas alternativas.

‘After crushing in the United States, alternative medicine extends his tentacles to Spain. (…) At the other side of the Atlantic, the boom is of such caliber that in some zones of the country, nearly 50% of the patients turn to those practices. (…) As was only to be expected, the Internet also reflects this social interest, with an authentic flood of web pages on many of the alternative medicines.

65The treatment avalancha ‘avalanche’ receives in REDES dictionary (Bosque 2004) corroborates our analysis. REDES sets out to outline the combinatorial pattern of its entries. For both alud ‘avalanche’ and aluvión ‘flood’, the dictionary refers to the entry of avalanche (which confirms once again the overlap in the conceptual images of the near-synonymous QNs). As to avalancha (de), REDES (2004: 361) stipulates that it combines both with plural count nouns and with singular mass nouns. In its “physical” reading, it combines with nieve ‘snow’, lluvia ‘rain’, hielo ‘ice’, lodo ‘mud’, etc. and other material which can move, loosen and come down. In addition, avalancha combines with human entities, mainly nouns designating human beings who are moving (e.g., turista ‘tourist’, viajero ‘traveller’, inmigrante ‘immigrant’, etc.) or who are going to a specific place (e.g., votante ‘voter’, curioso ‘curious person’, paciente ‘patient’, cliente ‘client’, periodista ‘journalist’, etc.). Further, avalancha frequently combines with nouns designating “verbal manifestations” (e.g., rumores ‘rumors’, palabras ‘words’, etc.), other “objects of information” (e.g., libros ‘books’, películas ‘movies’, periódicos ‘newspapers’, etc.) and with “sensations or vivid feelings” (e.g., alegría ‘happiness’, entusiasmo ‘enthusiasm’, interés ‘interest’, etc.). The dictionary concludes by listing three particularly frequent “lexical families”: (a) nouns which designate manifestations of disagreement as well as some official or administrative actions that usually result from those manifestations (e.g., crítica ‘criticism’, denuncia ‘report, formal complaint’, queja ‘complaint’, protesta ‘protest’, etc.); (b) nouns which designate requests or applications, offers and varied ways of notification (e.g., petición ‘request’, pedido ‘order’, llamada ‘call’, etc.); (c) nouns which designate something considered as new or presented as such (e.g., novedad ‘novelty’, noticia ‘news item’, revelación ‘revelation’, etc.). Instead of exclusively focusing on the overlap in the conceptual images, we have tried to show that each QN – in function of its original lexical meaning – also introduces slightly different nuances in the conceptualization of the number of N2. In other words, the productivity of the BQ construction in Spanish is not to be equated with a lack of economy since it meets the communicative needs of the speaker.

4.4 The notion of conceptual image persistence revisited

66As illustrated in the previous sections, the estimation of ‘persistence’ is a gradual matter: conceptual persistence not only varies in degree (Section 4.4.1) but also in the facets of the QN’s image which get highlighted in a specific context (Section 4.4.2).

4.4.1 Conceptual persistence as a gradual phenomenon

67Examples (47) to (49) display a different degree of metaphorization of alud de as a huge number of N2 entities that suddenly overwhelm the affected entities as if almost literally. In (47), the modifying adjective verdadero enhances alud’s metaphorical interpretation. In (48), the multiple arrivals of the family members are still felt as an unavoidable and unpleasant reaction triggered by the false assumptions. However, since the family visits are not necessarily spatio-temporally contiguous, the strictly metaphorical interpretation of alud is less straightforward. In (49), the N2 ‘prohibitions’ is completely devoid of proper dynamicity and thus a priori precludes alud’s metaphorical reading.


Como anécdota marginal hay que constatar que en los días siguientes a sus apariciones en televisión, llegaba a la oficina del Defensor un verdadero alud de cartas y de reclamaciones, unas justificadas y otras peregrinas. (book, C. Giner de Grado, El Defensor del Pueblo en la teoría y en la práctica, 1986)

‘As a marginal anecdote it has to be observed that the days following his television appearances, a real avalanche of letters and complaints, some justified and others outlandish, arrived at the defense counsel's office.’


Doña América cortó la discusión de forma expeditiva poniéndose en pie y abandonando el comedor pese a que apenas si estaba a mitad del primer plato. Sabiendo que esos detalles mínimos, una vez en poder de sus hijos, iban a transformarse en volcánicas y descabelladas hipótesis que escandalizarían al resto de la familia provocando un alud de tíos y primas viniendo a decirle tú estás loca, a quién se le ocurre consentir semejante aventura, la madre debió hablar seriamente con la abuela Africa en su dormitorio. (novel, J. Fernández de Castro, La novia del Capitán, 1987)

‘Miss America cut off the discussion drastically by standing up and leaving the dining room although she hardly had half her first dish. Since she knew that those tiny details, once in the hands of her children, would transform into volcanic and crazy hypotheses that would shock the rest of the family and provoke an avalanche of uncles and cousins coming to tell her ‘you are mad, to whom does it occur to consent to a such an adventure’, the mother had to talk seriously with grandmother Africa in her bedroom.’


Es decir, el Vaticano sabe que el terreno en el que se ha atrevido a opinar es todavía muy movedizo. [...] Quedan, además, abiertas algunas puertas al diálogo. En medio del alud de prohibiciones se dejan ver diferentes grados de rechazo entre lo mismo que se señala como negativo; [...]. (press (newspaper), ABC, 11/03/1987)

‘In fact, the Vatican knows that the field in which it dared express an opinion is still very unstable. [...] Besides, some doors remain open for dialogue. In the midst of an avalanche of prohibitions there is room for varying degrees of rejection even for what is identified as negative; [...].’

  • 30 Which particular semantic facet(s) is (are) activated in a particular BQC is determined primarily i (...)

68As a rule of thumb, we propose to distinguish between three degrees of conceptual image persistence, viz. high, medial and neutral conceptual image persistence, depending on whether the relation of the grammaticalized QN with its source frame is a metaphorical, a metonymic or simply a more diffuse one.30 This is not to say, however, that this distinction would reflect a cline in degree of grammaticalization, by which neutral conceptual image persistence would yield the highest degree of grammaticalization, and high conceptual image persistence the lowest one. Mogollón ‘mess, fuss’, for instance, is highly grammaticalized yet always highlights facets of its conceptual image, thus conveying a high conceptual image persistence. In an attempt to achieve maximal transparency in our data, we based the estimation of the degree of conceptual image persistence on the degrees of abstraction established for the facets within the conceptual image of each QN.

69Interestingly, some facets automatically entail a metaphorical reading of the QN, whereas other facets are derived via metonymic extensions from the QN’s literal frame. The left-most column in Figure 3 lists facets which in the grammaticalized uses are systematically associated with a metaphoric interpretation.

  • 31 The pairs (c1-c2) and (d1-d2) are not considered separate facets, since their activation depends on (...)

Figure 3. Semantic facets potentially profiled by quantifying aluvión de; CIP stands for ‘conceptual image persistence’31

  • 32 This is example (17), repeated for convenience.

70By way of illustration, Figure 3 copies the conceptual image of aluvión de as established in Section 4.3.1 and indicates which sets of facets usually yield high, medial or neutral conceptual image persistence. High conceptual image persistence proceeds from the activation of the entire set of facets that originate in a metaphoric interpretation of aluvión de, i.e., facets (a)-(c), as is the case in (50). Occurrences qualify for medial conceptual image persistence either when one or more facets metonymically related to aluvión de’s original frame get highlighted (from (e) to (h)), e.g., in (51), where it is the insistent nature of the themes leaving an even stronger impression. Or, else, the set of metaphorically related facets is only partially profiled: in example (52),32 e.g., the N2s are depicted as if overwhelming the Spanish road system literally, and to a lesser extent as appearing all of a sudden (comienza), yet the facet ‘all at once’ is not profiled in this particular context. The BQ construction displays neutral conceptual image persistence when the quantity assessment is only vaguely reminiscent of aluvión de’s source semantics and profiles one or more of the facets (i) to (j), as in (53). However, even the newness of N2 (facet (i)) or the idea that there are too many N2 entities (facet (j)) can only be arrived at through a chain of metonymic inferences. In other words, even in the cases categorized as displaying neutral conceptual image persistence, the QN does not betray its original frame.


En tal sentido, ha colaborado con Cruz Roja Española en dos proyectos muy útiles: el equipamiento con la tecnología más avanzada de una unidad móvil para casos de desastre y en la instalación de un centro telefónico de última generación que permite gestionar a la vez un aluvión de llamadas. (press (magazine), Revista Cruz Roja, 2002)

‘In the same field, it [the company] has collaborated with the Spanish Red Cross in two very useful projects: the equipment with more advanced technology of a mobile unit for cases of disaster and the installation of a call center of the latest generation that allows to handle simultaneously a flood ofcalls.’


El aplauso al final de la primera parte, tras escucharse los últimos compases de "Both sides", fue el premio al reencuentro de los fans con las viejas canciones del intérprete, que en la segunda mitad del concierto comenzó con su ya clásico tema del primer elepé "In the air tonight". A continuación, un verdadero aluvión de temas potentes con mucha más garra que en la primera parte, lo que, al parecer, hizo despertar hasta a los propios músicos que acompañaban a Phil Collins en el escenario. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 21/04/1994)

‘The applause at the end of the first part, after having listened to the last times of “Both sides”, was the award of the reunion of the fans with the old songs of the performer, who in the second half of the concert started with the by now classical theme of the first LP “In the air tonight”. From that moment on, a real flood of powerful themes with much more spirit than in the first part, which, so it seems, woke up including his own musicians who were accompanying Phil Colins on stage.’’


En nuestro país existe del orden de medio millón de licencias de cicloturistas federados, amén del otro aluvión de esforzados de la ruta en versión no profesional que pueblan las carreteras españolas. (press (newspaper), La Vanguardia, 06/07/1994)

‘In our country, there are in the order of half a million of licenses for federated touring cyclists, apart from the other flood of road maniacs in a non-professional version that populate the Spanish roads.’


Eso trata de probar esta muestra, que la fotografía de hoy se ha dotado de movimiento alejándose, en parte, de objetivos conceptuales, pero ofreciendo un aluvión de sugerencias. De la fascinación al miedo, de la atracción al asco: todo cabe ya en este medio cercano que se redefine constantemente. (press (newspaper), El País, 04/10/2003).

‘This is what this exhibition tries to prove, that the nowadays’ photography has endowed itself with motion, moving away, partially, from conceptual objectives, but offering a flood of suggestions. From fascination to fear, from attraction to disgust: anything goes into this nearby medium which redefines itself constantly.’

71In addition, conceptual image persistence is high when some element of the context forms part of the source frame of the QN. In (54), the context evokes the effects of N2 on the Catholic Church, which is precisely the institution to which litanies are traditionally linked. In (54), the giant backpacks of Alpine hikers evoke a mountain scenery which is exactly the frame hosting snow slides as well.


La letanía de tragedias que causan cada día los malos tratos domésticos ha metido a laIglesia católica en un nuevo jardín de contradicciones y críticas. Externas e internas. (press (newspaper), El País, 24/09/2002)

‘The litany of tragedies that the domestic maltreatments cause every day has put the Catholic Church in a new garden of contradictions and criticism. External and internal ones.’


Pero ha triunfado la fuerza mercantil -que procura con harta frecuencia presentar lo superfluo como necesario- sobre toda lógica, y los indefensos escolares se ven cada año sepultados por un alud de volúmenes que les obliga a llevar gigantescas mochilas de excursionistas alpinos. (press (newspaper), ABC, 04/11/1997)

‘But the mercantile force – that very frequently tries to present the superfluous as necessary – has triumphed over logic, and the defenseless schoolchildren see themselves buried every year by an avalanche of volumes that obliges them to bring along giant backpacks of Alpine hikers.’

72It goes without saying that the original source semantics of aluvión and alud are harder to desemanticize than that of lots of other QNs (such as pila, montón, hatajo, etc.), whose conceptual images are less rich or specific. Still, a similar distinction between high, middle and neutral conceptual image persistence can be made for the remaining QNs depending on whether the relation of the grammaticalized QN with its original use is a metaphorical (56), a metonymic (57) or a more diffuse one (58).


No ha sido fácil vencer su resistencia, para que se aviniese a esta entrevista. Le he desgranado la letanía de colegas que le han precedido: Eduardo Móner, Roberto García Calvo, José Augusto de Vega, Javier Delgado Barrio, Clemente Auger, Carlos Jiménez Villarejo... (press (newspaper), El Mundo, 15/12/1996)

’It has not been easy to beat his resistence to agree to this interview. I enumerated to him the litany of colleagues who preceded him: E. Móner, R. García Calvo, J. A. de Vega, J. Delgado Barrio, Cl. Auger, C. Jiménez Villarejo…’


Me salí a los diecinueve, porque no encontré lo que buscaba: el espíritu puro y guerrero de la Roma mejor, de la gran Roma. Lo que allí había era un hatajo de tarados y de incompetentes. A la vez que una falta de seguridad en sí mismos y de profesionalidad en los superiores, que siempre actuaban procurando disimular su estupidez con el ordeno y mando. (narrative, A. Gala, Los invitados al jardín, 2002)

‘I left when I was nineteen, since I did not find what I was looking for: the pure and warlike spirit of the better Rome, of the Great Rome. What you found there was a bunch of insane and incompetent people. At the same time the superiors lack self-confidence and professionalism while also always acting in a way attempting to cover their stupidity in a dictatorial way.’


Allí, en el centro de la ciudad, mientras los taxis, los camiones, los rickshaws y los carros de bueyes se empujan para salir hacia adelante, un racimo de mendigos se asoma al cruce pidiendo calderilla. (press, magazine, Telva, 11/1997)

‘There, in the city centre, while the taxis, the trucks, the rickshaws and the ox-carts are shoving to go on, a bunch of beggars shows up at the crossing asking coins/money/loose change.’

  • 33 Note that the diachronic corpus analysis (Verveckken 2012a) has shown that only the histories of mo (...)

73It is striking, yet not surprising, that there is no direct correlation between the proportion of functional uses per QN and the degree of persistence. According to the traditional view on lexical persistence and grammaticalization, a high proportion of functional uses would be expected to go hand in hand with neutral conceptual image persistence, i.e., advanced grammaticalization. Table 6 presents the distribution of the degree of conceptual image persistence per QN. Though the highest proportion of neutral conceptual image persistence characterizes montón de, the least specific of the QNs as to the internal constellation of the mass, the remaining QNs are all susceptible of also adding a qualitative component to the conceptual frame that is being developed, beyond their quantifying function. Mogollón de, which is highly grammaticalized, always highlights facets of its conceptual image. With the minimal pair aluvión de and alud de and with hatajo de and letanía de, the tendency towards high conceptual image persistence is almost equally strong and the corresponding proportions of grammaticalized uses are similar as well. Instead of combining with neutral conceptual image persistence, those highly grammaticalized QNs are inclined to systematically activate their source frame. However, we would like to insist again on the fact that  ‘relative proportion of grammaticalized uses (in contrast to literal uses)’ should not be equated with ‘degree of grammaticalization’. This observation makes us refrain from considering persistence as a useful tool for identifying grammaticalization processes. The binominal constructions are not likely to end up as mere quantity assessment expression in the near future.33
















































































Table 6. Degree of conceptual image persistence in the functional uses (per QN).

4.4.2 Conceptual image persistence as un unpredictable phenomenon

74The systematic splitting up of the QN’s original frame into several conceptual facets which constitute its conceptual image (see Section 4.3.1) brings us to a second refinement of the notion of conceptual image persistence, viz. its unpredictability or the impossibility to foresee which semantic property will persist in the grammaticalized use.

75In setting up the conceptual images, we repeatedly illustrated that the sets of conceptual facets are not to be seen as a matter of all or nothing. Instead, the context and N2-collocate co-determine which property (or properties) of the QN’s source frame gets highlighted, e.g., the comparison between the aluvión examples (18)-(19) or the uses of racimo ‘bunch, cluster’) in (59)-(61). Whereas in (59) the focus is on the clustered configuration of values, the adjective buen enhances racimo’s focus on the uniformity or equivalence among the N2s in (60), and the discourse context of (61) is reminiscent of the ‘bunch-of-grapes’-like configuration of the N2s, suggesting an internal connection possibly along a common axis.


Un racimo de valores son, en consecuencia, manejados por la publicidad, pero su captación no es fácil, pues cada mensaje publicitario suele ser monotónico, reflejando sólo un cierto aspecto del alma juvenil, requiriéndose como siempre un examen del conjunto de anuncios si se quiere advertir el trabajo verdaderamente sinfónico ejecutado por la publicidad. (book, J.L. León, Mitoanálisis de la publicidad, 2001)

‘A bunch of values are consequently handled by the publicity, but capturing them is not easy, as every commerical tends to be monotonous, reflecting only a particular aspect of youthfulness, thus requiring, as usually, an analysis of the whole set of commercials if one wants to notice the really symphonic work carried out by the advertising agencies.'


Directores de calidad. A pesar de que su calidad no haya ido pareja a la de las orquestas europeas, la abundancia de formaciones ha permitido que sí se pueda encontrar un buen racimo de directores iberoamericanos. Dos de nuestras orquestas, las Sinfónicas de Córdoba y Asturias, cuentan con titulares provenientes de allí: Leo Brouwer de Cuba y Maximiano Valdés de Chile. (press (newspaper), ABC, 11/10/1996)

‘Quality conductors. Although their quality does not match that of European orchestras, the abundance of groups has made it possible to find a good bunch of Latin American conductors. Two of our orchestras, the Symphonic Orchestra of Córdoba and that of Asturias host conductors from there: Leo Brouwer from Cuba and Maximiano Valdés from Chile. ’


El sol naciente había apagado las antorchas de Jerusalén, ofreciendo a nuestros atónitos ojos un inmenso racimo de casitas blancas y ocres, apretadas las unas contra las otras y rotas en mil direcciones por quebradas callejuelas. (novel, J.J. Benítez, Caballo de Troya 1, 1984)

‘The rising sun has extinguished the torches of Jerusalem, offering to our astonished eyes an immense bunch of little white and ochre houses, squeezed together and broken down into a thousand of directions by zigzagging alleys.’

  • 34 Lack of space prevents us from going into the singular/plural distinction. This aspect is treated i (...)

76As to the selection of particular facets within the conceptual image, the construal operations and contextual cues play an important role, including not only the host-class of the grammaticalizing item (i.e. the N2 or adjective the QN combines with) but also the larger construction the QN appears in (such as, e.g., the predicate) and the ‘framing’ in the discourse. Since N2 (and the modifying adjective, if present) constitute the closest context of N1, its role is crucial for determining the relative prominence of the possible conceptual properties that perspire in the QN. It goes without saying that concrete nouns such as casas ‘houses’ in un racimo de casas stand more chance to highlight the tangled or ‘bunch of grapes’-like configuration than abstract notions such as ambición ‘ambition’. Further, the adjectives cadenciosa ‘rhythmical’ and cansina ‘weary’ observed in combination with letanía de obviously profile different subparts of the original frame. As to the importance of the ‘mise en discours’, examples such as (62) illustrate that contextual cues frequently cross clausal boundaries.34


Pagó a regañadientes la abusiva nota del té completo dejando incluso una propina excesiva para aliviar de algún modo la afrenta de aquella situación. Pansy le regañó al salir. En la guía Fodor's había leído que las propinas en Londres no debían ser superiores en ningún caso al 15 por ciento suponiendo que no estuviera ya incluida en la factura. Y él había dejado una barbaridad de propina que podría haberse destinado a la compra de otra jarrita del té (…). (novel, I. Carrión, Cruzar el Danubio, 1995)

‘He paid unwillingly the unfair bill of the tea, while including an excessive tip to relieve somehow the embarrassment of that situation. Pansy quarreled with him when leaving the place. She had read in the Fodor’s guide that in London, gratuities should in no way exceed 15 per cent, provided that it is not yet included in the bill. And he had left a barbarity of a tip that would have sufficed to buy another jug of tea.’

77Examples (59-62) thus illustrate the conceptual convergence between N1 and one or more elements of the surrounding context. In other words, not only do QNs impose selection restrictions on the N2s they combine with, but particular usage contexts or N2s determine which QN suits best the evoked image. For instance, in order to quantify a mass of protests, alud de is per definition more appropriate than aluvión de.

5. Conclusion

78This paper set out to question the widespread view on desemanticization and routinization processes typically involved in grammaticalization, at least in the usage-based approach. The case study on BQ constructions in Spanish has not only shown that grammaticalization is compatible with the conceptual persistence of facets belonging to the frame of N1 (as a lexical item), but also that the constructional possibility to exploit the conceptual frame of N1 explains the high token-frequency of the BQ construction in Spanish. Furthermore, our study showed that the adjectival modification, determiner variation, and variation in verb agreement give proof for the formal persistence of N1 which is both conceptually constrained and motivated. The different conceptualization each QN imposes on the interpretation of N2 further illustrates the impact that the  conceptual image persistence may have on the further development of a construction: in the case of BQ constructions in Spanish, conceptual image persistence is intrinsically linked up with the pragmatic function of BQ constructions, viz. to expressively quantify N2.

79The case study thus offers new insights for grammaticalization theory regarding the notion of ‘lexical persistence’. Firstly, conceptual image persistence should not be considered a side effect of grammaticalization, since it may account for the spread of the change, or at least, for its rise in type frequency. Secondly, Hopper’s (1991) lexical persistence is preferably interpreted as a conceptual phenomenon which is encyclopedic in scope, as the facets shading through in the operator-like reading of N1 vary in degrees of schematicity and may differ from one occurrence to another. Thirdly, conceptual persistence is a gradual and unpredictable phenomenon, depending on the (degree of) conceptual convergence between N1 and one or more elements of the surrounding context.

80An interesting question that remains unsolved however is the universality of conceptual image persistence in grammaticalization. Since change occurs in actual usage, and since speakers do not abruptly change an item’s meaning, we believe grammaticalization to be largely conceptually motivated, even if after a dozen of generations, only linguists and history-minded speakers trace the form back to its original use as a lexical item. We leave this issue for further research.

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1 Traditionally, the notion of ‘quantifying nouns’ (or ‘sustantivos cuantificativos’ in RAE & ASALE 2009: 823) refers to ‘bounding nouns’ (e.g., un pedazo de (queso) ‘a piece of (cheese)’), ‘measure nouns’ (e.g., un kilo de (garbanzos) ‘a kilo of (chickpeas)’) and ‘group nouns’ (e.g., una manada de (cerdos) ‘a herd of (pigs)’). In this paper, however, we focus on nouns which present a quantifying potential in addition to their lexical meaning (e.g., while liter and slice automatically profile a certain quantity, pile only does so inside the binominal construction). To avoid possible confusion, the notion of binominal quantifier construction is preferred to ‘(pseudo)partitive construction’ (as used in RAE & ASALE 2009: 1448) as the latter is typically associated with abstract notions of quantity (such as mitad ‘half’, docena ‘dozen’, or metro ‘meter’) which do not undergo the subtle semantic changes observed with QNs.

2 For a detailed discussion on the role of the definite determiner, see Verveckken 2012a: 186-202. In a nutshell, in the context of mar ‘sea’, the feminine la seems to have specialized into a marker of quantity: the context expansion of la mar de is more advanced than the collocational broadening of mar de (both in terms of type of N2 and type of grammatical category following la mar de); la mar de seems restricted to contexts of highly subjective and hyperbolic quantification.

3 It does not seem to be a coincidence that the verb 'to go', and not 'to come', cross-linguistically grammaticalized into future tense marker. Only the former literally points to a journey 'ahead'.

4 Irrelevant occurrences were filtered out manually. A token is irrelevant for our purpose when it is not quantity related (i) or not used nominally but e.g. adverbially (ii).

i.  El primer hijo lo tuvieron hace dos años y dos semanas y se llama Ignacio, como el segundo nombre de pila de su padre. (press (newspaper), Diario de Navarra, 03/01/2011)
    ‘They had their first child two years and two weeks ago and it is named Ignacio, after the second first name (lit.: name of baptismal font) of his father’

ii.  Me río barbaridad de ti.
    ‘I laugh a lot (lit.: barbarity) at you.’

5 For now, we leave the matter for further investigation in the near future.

6 For the same reason, we did not differentiate between distinct discourse traditions (Kabatek 2005; we thank the anonymous reviewer for the suggestion).  Discourse traditions are considered as the repetition of a text or textual form or a particular way of writing or speaking that has acquired the status of a sign in itself (for providing meaning) and that is typically evoked by a particular communicative situation (Kabatek 2005: 158-159). The use of QNs is however not ‘evoked’ by a particular discourse situation, nor is it restricted to such usage context. Instead, QNs fulfill the pragmatic need of the speaker to express hyperbolic quantification, independent of the discourse tradition the speaker is involved in.

7 For the detailed diachronic analysis of the BQ construction, see Verveckken 2012a (Chapters 3-5).

8 The starting-point of the three-layered distinction of uses is Brems’ (2007, 2010) model of the English Size Noun-construction that distinguishes between (i) head, (ii) quantifier, (iii) valuing quantifier, (iv) ambiguous and (v) vague uses. Next to the head use, we only distinguish two functional uses: instead of two quantifier uses, we only distinguish one, and distinguish a second functional use which we define  by the (two-way) specifying function the BQ construction acquires under particular predicative conditions (cf. example (4)). This way, we acknowledge the evaluative potential of both functional uses, i.e. also of the so-called 'pure' quantifier use.

9 The tests are not exhaustively listed here for the sake of text fluidity (but see Verveckken 2012a for a detailed description). They include pluralization of N1, substitution, agreement, omission, contextual cues, semantic relationship, etc.

10 We thank Maarten Lemmens (p.c.) for pointing out that the two elements may, but need not be related; it's not because something is less common that it is also grander on the relevant scale. This relates to the idea of conceptual image persistence, as mentioned below, precisely for alud.

11 We therefore subscribe to De Smet’s (2013) polemic claim that syntactic change or innovation does not need reanalysis strictly speaking. If one allows syntactic categories to have a gradient constituent structure (De Smet, 2013: 33), the syntactic indeterminacy resulting from partial decategorialization of BQs is no longer an issue.

12 Traugott (2008) and Trousdale (Fc., following Traugott (2008)) distinguish four levels. The notion of macro-construction encompasses high-level schemas and is “the highest level relevant for the discussion at hand” (e.g., partitive construction, degree modifier construction). The meso-construction level refers to “sets of similarly-behaving constructions” (e.g., the set a bit/lot [of], the set (a) kind/sort of, etc.). Micro-constructions are “individual construction-types” such as a lot of and a bit of which are instantiated by constructs, i.e. “empirically attested tokens of micro-constructions” (Traugott 2007: 525). Crucially, the construct-level is the level of actual language use – hence the locus of innovation and change – and tokens or instances of a particular construction are “pragmatically rich” (Trousdale Fc.: 5).

13 This example has been taken from the CORDE-corpus, the diachronic online corpus of the Real Academia Española (Corpus diacrónico del español).

14 Especially those on partial re-semanticization, on the clustering of semantically related N2s and on the collocational preferences of QNs with a rich source semantics (cf. supra).

15 Most definitions encountered for alud, for instance, evoke the image of a snow slide involving violence and loudness, but fail to mention that the avalanche is irrepressible, unstoppable, life-threatening and generally has fatal consequences. In our view, exactly those properties get frequently highlighted in metaphoric uses of the BQ un alud de as in (i).

i. Pero lo que de verdad hubiera afectado a la estabilidad del país, habría sido el imparable alud de reproches que habría recaído sobre González. (book, P.J. Ramírez Codina, David contra Goliat. Jaque mate al felipismo, 1995)
   ‘But what would really have affected the country’s stability, would have been the unstoppable flood of reproaches that would have fallen down over González.’

16 Although probably many native speakers do not see any difference in meaning between un alud de N2 and un aluvión de N2, various natives presented with example (23) have suggested that aluvión is more appropriate.

17 As opposed to canonical quantifiers which do not combine with pre- or postmodifying adjectives: e.g., Hubo mucha gente ‘There were many people’ as opposed to *Hubo grande mucha gente ‘There were big many people’. Although the adjective gran perfectly fits the type modification of gente ‘people’ (as in gran gente ‘big people’), it cannot be used to intensify canonical quantifiers (e.g., mucho/a(s) ‘much, many’, tres (three), etc.

18 The only postmodifying adjectives observed are past participle forms with complements, which necessarily occupy the postnominal slot (Delbecque 1990: 384). E.g., Para entonces el campamento ya sólo era un montón de escombros, rodeado de enemigos por todas partes. ‘By that time, the camp was already nothing more than a heap of ruins, surrounded by enemies everywhere.’

19 The number of occurrences attested is mentioned between brackets.

20 We thank Nuria Herrera Coronas, Lydia Fernandez Pereda and Pedro Gras Manzano for their extensive and extremely valuable comments on our examples and proposed interpretations.

21 The main verb, e.g., se le cayeron encima ‘they fell on him’, le vino encima ‘it came upon him’, and postmodifying adjectives, e.g., nuevos ‘new’, add to the dynamicity of the construed event.

22 Since all three native speakers are Spanish language teachers or linguists, their intuition might slightly deviate from the layman’s interpretation.  Nevertheless, the interpretations of the near-synonymous BQs by our interviewees are always amply corroborated by the combinatorial pattern observed in the corpus. In other words, although Spanish speakers not necessarily, let alone consciously, construe negocios differently according to whether un alud de or un aluvión de is used, they are at least aware of the difference in associations, connotations and contexts of usage or co-selection patterns.

23 The set of conceptual facets that could be profiled in specific instances, have been established after meticulous corpus analysis. Only those facets are taken into account that are often explicitly mentioned in the context or that appear to systematically characterize the scenery evoked.

24 Usage context should be understood contentwise (i.e. contexts picturing politicians receiving criticism or drastic economic events), and not in terms of discourse traditions (Kabatek 2005). We thank the anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

25 To avoid possible misunderstandings, the differences in conceptualization described here are to be interpreted as tendencies. The fact that the combinations gracias al alud de N2 and a pesar del alud de N2 do not occur in CREA, does not mean that they do not exist. A Google search for these combinations (restricted to Spanish websites by adding [site:es] to the query), returned the following results: “gracias al aluvión de”: 865 instances vs. “gracias al alud de” 7 instances, “a pesar del aluvión de” 2500 instances vs. “a pesar del alud de” 1220 instances. In other words, the skewing returned by Google confirms the tendencies observed in CREA.

26 The temporal specification (tras 'after') further confirms that the criticisms were decisive for the judge to revise his plans.

27 Aluvión de N2 also co-occurs with verbs of ‘expectation’, thereby highlighting the victim's vantage point vis-à-vis the arrival of an oversized number of N2 entities (e.g., esperarse ‘to be expected’, temer ‘to fear’, sorprenderse de ‘to be surprised of’).

28 It is not worthwhile dwelling on the exact number of combinations, since the proportion varies not only in function of the communicative needs of the speakers in the particular context but also in view of the total number of occurrences of the QNs (the grammaticalized uses of aluvión de are more or less two times as frequent as the grammaticalized uses of alud de (132 and 65 occurrences respectively). For the same reason, Tables 4 and 5 do not exhaustively represent the combinations attested: per cluster, the verbs listed in Table 4 appear according to decreasing token-frequency; for the sake of clarity, not all verbs reflecting the QN’s source frame are listed; for the verbs yielding only one attestation in the corpus, a representative selection has been made.

29 Needless to say, the clusters of verbs/nouns observed easily fit in with the conceptual images of alud de and aluvión de. In this sense, we interpret the combinatorial pattern of the QNs as evidence for their individual construal of the number of N2-entities.

30 Which particular semantic facet(s) is (are) activated in a particular BQC is determined primarily in function of the combinatorial pattern and the contextual indices.

31 The pairs (c1-c2) and (d1-d2) are not considered separate facets, since their activation depends on the viewpoint (of the victim in (c1) and of the N2 in (c2)), and on the reference point in time (after the alud (in d1) thereby focusing on alud’s fatal consequences, or before the alud (d2) thereby stressing alud’s cause).

32 This is example (17), repeated for convenience.

33 Note that the diachronic corpus analysis (Verveckken 2012a) has shown that only the histories of montón de and la mar de present a decrease in conceptual persistence over time.

34 Lack of space prevents us from going into the singular/plural distinction. This aspect is treated in Verveckken (2012a: Chapter 7).

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Conceptual facets in the conceptual image of aluvión de
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Légende Figure 2. The starting point(s) of the N2 entities quantified by alud de and aluvión de
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Légende Figure 3. Semantic facets potentially profiled by quantifying aluvión de; CIP stands for ‘conceptual image persistence’31
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Katrien Verveckken & Nicole Delbecque, « On the development of binominal quantifiers in Spanish: the notion of lexical persistence revisited », CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 13 | 2015, mis en ligne le 27 décembre 2015, consulté le 11 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Katrien Verveckken

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

Nicole Delbecque

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

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