Modes of Comparison

The ability to order objects along a graded continuum is a basic component of human cognition, yet languages vary widely in the way that assertions about such orderings are encoded syntactically in comparative constructions. Why? Does this variability  indicate a corresponding variability in the underlying semantics of the terms used to express gradability and comparison, or is a universal  semantics of comparison obscured by superficial morphosyntactic variation?  If the former, what (if any) aspects of the semantics of comparison are universal and what aspects are subject to cross-linguistic variation? If the latter, what is the universal semantics of comparison, and what are the (non-semantic) factors that give rise to the observed typological variation?  The goal of this paper is both to consider some initial (and partial) answers to these questions in the context of a close examination of comparatives in English and Japanese, and (perhaps more importantly) to advocate a particular set of tests for investigating them.