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Summary Details

Query:   referential determiners
Author:  Tania R Ionin
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   General Linguistics

Summary:   Dear all,

About three weeks ago, in Linguist posting 13.719, I asked a question
about how specificity and referentiality are encoded across languages. I'm
investigating article use in L2-English, and am interested in comparing it
to article systems that exist in various languages, focussing on the
issues of specificity and referentiality in particular. I am very grateful
to all of the people who responded to my query with information on article
use in various languages, as well as references to L1 and L2 literature on
articles and specificity. I would like to thank the following linguists
for responding to my query:

Lena Agathopoulou,
Gulsat Aygen,
Dr Bjoern Hansen,
Christian Duetschmann,
Yura Lander,
Jacqueline Lecarme,
Katalin Mady,
Ilana Mezhevich,
William Morris,
Tom Roeper,
Jeannette Schaeffer,
J L Speranza,
Danijela Trenkic,
Stephen Wilson,
Sharon Unsworth,
Niina Zhang,

Below is an alphabetized list of references that I received as a result of
my query. Lyons's (1999) book was recommended to me by many, and I found
it an excellent review of article systems across languages. I would highly
recommend it to anyone who would like a cross-linguistic review of
definiteness, referentiality, and specificity. Geurts's (2002) article,
recommended by Yura Lander, is also a great cross-linguistic review.
Various other papers in the list below also explore article use and/or
definiteness/specificity in natural language.

In regards to acquisition, interesting results concerning article usage
and specificity in L1-English acquisition can be found in the papers of
Matthewson and Schaeffer, and of Matthewson, Bryant, and Roeper, which
compare article use in child English to that in adult Salish. Thanks to
Jeannette Schaeffer and Tom Roeper, respectively, for making these papers
available to me. As for L2-acquisition, the thesis and the (2002) paper of
Danijela Trenkic investigate article use in L2-English, including article
use with different types of NPs (concrete vs. abstract). Thanks to
Danijela for making her papers available to me.

Below the reference list, I have appended some individual responses, which
discuss articles and specificity cross-linguistically.


Aygen, Gulsat. 1999. Specificity and Subject-Object Positions / Scope
Interactions in Turkish. In Proceedings of the I International Conference
in Turkic Linguistics, Manchester University, Manchester.

Dixon. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge University Press.

Enc, M. 1991. The semantics of specificity. Linguistic Inquiry 22(1),

Geurts, Bart. 2002: Specific indefinites, presupposition, and scope. To
appear in: R. Bduerle, U. Reyle, and T.E. Zimmermann (eds.),
Presuppositions and Discourse. Elsevier, Oxford. Available at

Givon, Talmy. 1978. Definiteness and referentiality. In
J.H.Greenberg(ed.), Universals of human Language, vol. 4, Stanford.

Gundel, J. K., N. Hedberg & R. Zacharski, 'Givenness, implicature & the
form of referring expressions in discourse', in K. Hall, ed, The Legacy of
Grice. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society. 16th annual meeting of the
Berkeley Linguistics Society.

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 1997. Deiktikon, Artikel, Nominalphrase : zur
Emergenz syntaktischer Struktur. T|bingen : Niemeyer. (Linguistische
Arbeiten ; 362) ISBN 3-484-30362-x

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 2001. overview article on "Articles" (in English)
in Haspelmath, Martin et al. (eds.), Language typology and language
universals, vol. I, pp. 831-842.

Hoop, H. de. 2000. Optional scrambling and interpretation. In H. Bennis,
M. Everaert & E. Reuland (eds.) Interface Strategies. Amsterdam: Royal
Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. pp. 153-168.

Kramer, I. 2000. Interpreting Indefinites. An Experimental Study of
Children's Language Comprehension. PhD dissertation, University of

Kramsky, J. 1972. The Article and the Concept of Definiteness in Language.
Mouton, The Hague, Paris.

Lecarme, Jacqueline. 1996. Tense in the nominal system: the Somali DP.
available at

Lecarme, Jacqueline. 1999. Nominal Tense and Tense Theory. available at

Longobardi, Guiseppe. 1994. Reference and Proper Names: A Theory of
N-Movement in Syntax and Logical Form. Linguistic Inquiry 25, no. 4, p.

Lyons, Christopher. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Matthewson, Lisa, Tim Bryant and Tom Roeper. A Salish Stage in the
Acquisition of English Determiners: Unfamiliar Definites. available at

Matthewson, Lisa and Jeannette Schaeffer. 2000. Grammar and pragmatics in
the acquisition of article systems. in Jill Gilkerson, Misha Becker, and
Nina Hyams (eds.) UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics: Language
Development and Breakdown 1, University of California, Los Angeles,1-39.

Mezhevich, I. 2001. Locative inversion, definiteness and free word order
in Russian. Calgary Working Papers in Linguistics, 30-48.

Pirez-Leroux, Ana T. and Tom Roeper. Scope and the Structure of Bare
Nominals: Evidence from Child Language. available at

Polinsky, Maria (1992). Maori he revisited. Oceanic Linguistics. 32:

Robertson, Daniel. 2000. Variability in the use of the English article
system by Chinese learners of English. Second Language Research 16, 2 pp.

Schaeffer, J.C. 2000. The Acquisition of Direct Object Scrambling and
Clitic Placement: Syntax and Pragmatics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Trenkic, Danijela. 2000. The acquisition of English articles by Serbian
speakers. Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge.

Trenkic, Danijela. 2001. Establishing the definiteness status of referents
in dialogue in languages with and without articles. Working Papers in
English and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge.

Trenkic, Danijela. 2002. Form-meaning connections in the acquisition of
English articles. To appear in EUROSLA yearbook 2002.

Yokoyama, O. 1985. A diversified approach to Russian word order. Issues in
Russian Morphosyntax, ed. by Michael S.Flier and Richard D.Brecht,
Slavica, Columbus, Ohio. 187-208.

Zhang, Niina. Representing Specificity by the Internal Order of
Indefinites. (March 2002).



Ilana Mezhevich <> writes:

Russian, as well as other Slavic languages, lack formal determiners. It
has been suggested that such languages use the whole range of informal
tools to indicate (in)definiteness/specificity. One of these tools is
word order. The general idea is that DPs preceding the verb tend to
receive a definite interpretation, while those that follow the verb tend
to receive an indefinite interpretation. However, it seems that things
are that straightforward only when we deal with DPs neutral with respect
to definiteness and which appear in sentences with intransitive verbs.
The matter becomes more complex when it comes to inherently definite and
inherently indefinite DPs (for example, when a demonstrative pronoun is
present the DP becomes definite, while the presence of a weak
quantifier or a numeral makes the DP indefinite) and sentences with
transitive verbs, where both positions - preverbal and postverbal - are
occupied. It looks like inherently definite DPs are still interpreted as
definite even if they follow the verb, whereas inherently indefinite DPs
are interpreted as indefinite even when they precede the verb. Other
factors that seem to be relevant here: stress, and of course, context.
[See the references of Kramsky, Mezhevich, and Yokoyama in the above list
- thanks to Ilana Mezhevich for bringing them to my attention]


William Morris < writes>:

You might look into Philippine languages. My impression is that all
Philippine languages operate in very similar fashions; the lg I am most
familiar with is Kapampangan.

(Kapampangan is particularly good for this purpose because, unlike any
other Ph lgs I've seen, it has obligatory agreement with both absolutive
and ergative nominals. Therefore one can easily distinguish between core
and non-core relationships. For what you are doing that may be

In Kapampangan, in order for a noun to carry case it must be definite.
And that can force changes in the structure of the entire sentence.
clauses with an indefinite patient must be manifest as intransitive
(Transitive clauses with an indefinite ergative nominal tend to be encoded
using existential sentences introducing the indefinite nominal, thus
them to be definite in the central clause.)

For sentences like "there's a man under that tree", where no core nominal
is definite, there are existential constructions that do not have the
marking. Therefore there are no absolutive or ergative nominals in the

ating tawu keng babo ning tanaaman
There-is person OBL under GEN tree
There's someone under the tree.

When the patient of an action is indefinite one must resort to either
noun-incorporation or oblique status for the patient. (Obliques usually
have a partitive construal.) And the verb is intransitive.

Noun incorporation. (The incorporated noun comes immediately after the
mengan ya-ng manuk ing asu
ate (intran) 3sA-CONN chicken ABS dog
The dog ate chicken.

mengan ya ing asu keng manuk
ate (intran) 3sA ABS dog OBL chicken
The dog ate some chicken.

To have a fully transitive sentence one must have two definite nominals:

pengan ne ning asu ing manuk
ate (tran) 3sE/3sA ERG dog ABS chicken
The dog ate the chicken.

(Whenever the ABS is 3s there is an obligatory contraction of the
two agreement markers, na ya > ne. When plural it is optional,
na la > no.)

You will notice that "ning" is both the ergative and genitive case
marker/definite article.
This alignment is not unexpected in morphologically ergative languages.
See Dixon 1994, Ergativity (Cambridge University Press).


Katalin Mady <> writes:

Hungarian is a language where there are two kind of articles: the
definite article 'a/az' ('a' being the form preceding a word initial
consonant, 'az' preceding a word initial vowel) and the indefinite
article 'egy' (meaning also 'one', whereas the definite article has
developed from the determinative 'az' meaning 'that'). This is not very
special so far. But there are two verb conjugation paradigms in
Hungarian: the subjective and the objective paradigm. Indefinite
determiners and quantifiers (the indef. article, all number names, for
example, or 'minden' 'each', 'nihany' 'some') always require the
subjective conjugation ('Attila lat_ EGY tehenet' - Attila sees A cow),
definite determiners and quantifiers (def. article, 'vsszes' 'all')
require the objective conjugation ('Attila latJA A tehenet' - Attila
sees THE cow).


Sharon Unsworth <> writes:

I don't know whether you're already aware of this but Dutch (arguably)
marks specificity/referentiality in DPs by scrambling, i.e. moving the DP
from its preverbal base position (1) to the left of a sentential
such as negation (2).

(1) Piet gaat niet een / geen bloem plukken
Peter goes not a no flower pick
'Peter isn't going to pick a(ny) flower.'

(2) Piet gaat iin/een bloem niet plukken
Peter goes a flower not pick
'Peter isn't going to pick a (particular) flower.'

The non-scrambled NP in (1) refers to any flower, i.e. is non-referential,
whereas the scrambled NP in (2) refers to a specific flower. There is a
lot of debate in the theoretical literature as to whether scrambling does
actually mark the notion of 'specificity', 'referentiality' (or something
similar); it has been claimed (e.g. by de Hoop 2000) that scrambling is
actually optional.
[see de Hoop (2000) in the above reference list; and see Schaeffer (2000),
Kramer (2000) in the reference list for first language acquisition studies
of scrambling - thanks to Sharon Unsworth for these references]


Tania Ionin
(617) 253-8175
Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, MIT
77 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02139

LL Issue: 13.1014
Date Posted: 12-Apr-2002
Original Query: Read original query


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