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In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adverb or adjective that is used to signify the greatest degree of a given descriptor. English superlatives are typically formed with the suffix -est (e.g. healthiest, weakest) or the word most (most recent, most interesting). One preposition, near, also has a superlative form, as in Find the restaurant nearest your house.
- Example of superlative: "She is [the] most beautiful [of all the women here tonight]."
Simply put, the word 'superlative' is defined as
- (a noun) an exaggerated mode of expression (usually of praise): "the critics lavished superlatives on it";
- (an adjective) the greatest: the highest in quality;
- the superlative form of an adjective: "best" is the superlative form of "good," "most" when used together with an adjective or adverb.
Superlatives with absolutes
Some grammarians object to the use of the superlative or comparative with words such as full, complete, unique, or empty, which by definition already denote either a totality, an absence, or an absolute. However, such words are routinely and frequently qualified in contemporary speech and writing. This type of usage conveys more of a figurative than a literal meaning, because in a strictly literal sense, something cannot be more or less unique or empty to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, in a strict literal sense, absolutes do only exist within rigorous abstract concepts, such as mathematics, but not in the real world or in the sense of human cognition or communication. For example, in the phrase "most complete selection of wines in the Midwest," "complete" doesn't mean "having all elements represented," it merely connotes that the selection is more well-rounded and relatively extensive. The superlative on the other hand does not exclude the possibility that all other selections are necessarily less extensive, but is meant in the sense that it is probably and currently the most extensive collection officially known.
By another example, an "empty bucket" does not literally exist outside of our imagination, because there is strictly and literally speaking always some residue in it, and if some of that residue were to be removed it would logically require that the bucket is either "more empty" or cannot ever be empty in the first place. Equally, the bucket can logically, but not grammatically, be "most empty" if the superlative denotes something like: "most empty within the limits of current technology." Because such an overly literal meaning to superlatives and absolutes has no place in the real world and common language, it raises the question if the grammar rules should not be adjusted to allow for a more correct representation of the world by language and its rules; as in, 'more correct' insofar as amongst several buckets, one - (more free from any residues than the others) is the 'most empty' bucket amongst the group - is both logically and grammatically correct.
In other languages
In contrast to English, the elative and the superlative are joined into the same degree (the superlative), which can be of two kinds: comparative (e.g. "the most beautiful") and absolute (e.g. "very beautiful").
French: The superlative is created from the comparative by inserting the definitive article (la, le, or les), or the possessive article (mon, ton, son, etc.), before "plus" or "moins" and the adjective determining the noun. For instance: Elle est la plus belle femme → (she is the most beautiful woman); Cette ville est la moins chère de France → (this town is the least expensive in France); C'est sa plus belle robe → (It is her most beautiful dress).
Spanish: The comparative superlative, like in French, has the definite article (such as "las" or "el"), or the possessive article ("tus," "nuestra," "su," etc.), followed by the comparative ("más" or "menos"), so that "el meñique es el dedo más pequeño" or "el meñique es el más pequeño de los dedos" is "the pinky is the smallest finger." Irregular comparatives are "mejor" for "bueno" and "peor" for "malo," which can be used as comparative superlatives also by adding the definite article or possessive article, so that "nuestro peor error fue casarnos" is "our worst mistake was to get married."
The absolute superlative is normally formed by modifying the adjective by adding -ísimo, -ísima, -ísimos or -ísimas, depending on the gender or number. Thus, "¡Los chihuahuas son perros pequeñísimos!" is "Chihuahuas are such tiny dogs!" Some irregular superlatives are "máximo" for "grande," "pésimo" for "malo," "ínfimo" for "bajo," "óptimo" for "bueno," "acérrimo" for "acre," "paupérrimo" for "pobre," "celebérrimo" for "célebre."
There is a difference between comparative superlative and absolute superlative: Ella es la más bella → (she is the most beautiful); Ella es bellísima → (she is extremely beautiful).
Portuguese and Italian distinguish comparative superlative (superlativo relativo) and absolute superlative (superlativo absoluto/assoluto). For the comparative superlative they use the words "mais" and "più" between the article and the adjective, like "most" in English. For the absolute superlative they either use "muito"/"molto" and the adjective or modify the adjective by taking away the final vowel and adding issimo (singular masculine), issima (singular feminine), íssimos/issimi (plural masculine), or íssimas/issime (plural feminine). For example:
- Aquele avião é velocíssimo/Quell'aeroplano è velocissimo → That airplane is very fast
There are some irregular forms for some words ending in "-re" and "-le" (deriving from Latin words ending in "-er" and "-ilis") that have a superlative form similar to the Latin one. In the first case words lose the ending "-re" and they gain the endings errimo (singular masculine), errima (singular feminine), érrimos/errimi (plural masculine), or érrimas/errime (plural feminine); in the second case words lose the "-l"/"-le" ending and gain ílimo/illimo (singular masculine), ílima/illima (singular feminine), ílimos/illimi (plural masculine), or ílimas/illime (plural feminine), the irregular form for words ending in "-l"/"-le" is somehow rare and, in Italian but nor is Portuguese, it exists only in the archaic or literary language. For example:
- "Acre" (acer in Latin) which means acrid, becomes "acérrimo"/"acerrimo" ("acerrimus" in Latin). "Magro" ("thin" in Portuguese) becomes "magérrimo."
- Italian simile (similis in Latin) which means "similar," becomes (in ancient Italian) "simillimo" ("simillimus" in Latin).
- Portuguese difícil ("hard/difficult") and fácil (facile).
Romanian, similar to Portuguese and Italian, distinguishes comparative and absolute superlatives. The comparative uses the word "mai" before the adjective, which operates like "more" or "-er" in English. For example: luminos → bright, mai luminos → brighter. To weaken the adjective, the word "puțin" (little) is added between "mai" and the adjective, for example mai puțin luminos → less bright. For absolute superlatives, the gender-dependent determinant "cel" precedes "mai," conjugated as "cel / cei" for male singular / plural and "cea / cele" for female singular / plural. For example: cea mai luminoasă stea → the brightest star; cele mai frumoase fete → the most beautiful girls; cel mai mic morcov → the smallest carrot.
Scottish Gaelic: When comparing one entity to another in the present or the future tense, the adjective is changed by adding an e to the end and i before the final consonant(s) if the final vowel is broad. Then, the adjective is preceded by to say "more," and as to say "most." (The word na is used to mean than.) Adjectives that begin with f are lenited. and as use different syntax constructions. For example: Tha mi nas àirde na mo pheathraichean. → I am taller than my sisters. Is mi as àirde. → I am the tallest.
As in English, some forms are irregular, i.e. nas fheàrr (better), nas miosa (worse), etc.
In other tenses, nas is replaced by na bu and as by a bu, both of which lenite the adjective if possible. If the adjective begins with a vowel or an f followed by a vowel, the word bu is reduced to b'. For example:
- Bha mi na b' àirde na mo pheathraichean. → I was taller than my sisters.
- B' e mi a b' àirde. → I was the tallest.
Welsh is similar to English in many respects. The ending -af is added onto regular adjectives in a similar manner to the English -est, and with (most) long words mwyaf precedes it, as in the English most. Also, many of the most common adjectives are irregular. Unlike English, however, when comparing just two things, the superlative must be used, e.g. of two people - John ydy'r talaf (John is the tallest).
In Akkadian cuneiform, (on a 12 paragraph clay tablet), from the time period of the 1350 BC Amarna letters (a roughly 20-year body of letters), two striking examples of the superlative extend the common grammatical use. The first is the numeral "10," as well as "7 and 7." The second is a verb-spacement adjustment.
The term "7 and 7" means 'over and over'. The phrase itself is a superlative, but an addition to some of the Amarna letters adds "more" at the end of the phrase (EA 283, Oh to see the King-(pharaoh): "... I fall at the feet of the king, my lord. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 and 7 times more, ....". The word 'more' is Akkadian mila, and by Moran is 'more' or 'overflowing'. The meaning in its letter context is "...over and over again, overflowing," (as 'gushingly', or 'obsequiously', as an underling of the king).
The numeral 10 is used for ten times greater in EA 19, Love and Gold, one of King Tushratta's eleven letters to the Pharaoh-(Amenhotep IV-Akhenaton). The following quote using 10, also closes out the small paragraph by the second example of the superlative, where the verb that ends the last sentence is spread across the letter in s-p-a-c-i-n-g, to accentuate the last sentence, and the verb itself (i.e. the relational kingly topic of the paragraph):
- ".... Now, in keeping with our constant and mutual love, you have made it 10 times greater than the love shown my father. May the gods grant it, and may Teššup, my lord, and Aman make flourish for evermore, just as it is now, this mutual love of ours.
The actual last paragraph line contains three words: 'may it be', 'flourish', and 'us'. The verb flourish (from napāhu?, to light up, to rise), uses: -e-le-né-ep-pi-, and the spaces. The other two words on the line, are made from two characters, and then one: "...may it be, flourish-our (relations)."
In Estonian superlative form can usually made up in two ways. One is constructed with words "kõige" + comparative form. It can be made with all adjectives. For example: "sinine" (blue) comparative form is "sinisem" and therefore superlative form is "kõige sinisem." The short superlative form is made up by adding "-m" to the end of plural partitive case. Plural partitive from the word "sinine" (blue) is "siniseid" and therefore "siniseim" is short superlative. Short superlative cannot be made up with all adjectives and in difference of the "kõige"-form, it has a lot of exceptions.
- Moran, William L. (1992) , The Amarna Letters (2nd ed.), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-80186-715-0
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman