LINGUIST List 32.1223

Tue Apr 06 2021

Review: Semantics: Aguilar-Guevara, Pozas Loyo, Vázquez-Rojas Maldonado (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 17-Sep-2020
From: Justin Case <>
Subject: Definiteness across languages
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Ana Aguilar-Guevara
EDITOR: Julia Pozas Loyo
EDITOR: Violeta Vázquez-Rojas Maldonado
TITLE: Definiteness across languages
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Diversity Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Language Science Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Justin Thomas Case, University of Ottawa


The works that make up ‘Definiteness across languages’, edited by Ana Aguilar-Guevara, Julia Pozas Loyo and Viola Vázquez-Rojas Maldonado, were selected from presentations given at the workshop with the same name held on 23-25 June 2016 in Mexico City. As the name suggests, these papers are united by their commitment to broadening our knowledge regarding the expression of definiteness and the interpretation thereof in natural languages, both spoken and signed. ‘Definiteness across languages’ aims to provide a balanced exposition of theoretically-, experimentally- and descriptively-oriented accounts of definiteness systems spanning a typologically diverse sample of the world’s languages.

The volume comprises three sections. The first section pertains to definiteness marking systems in a number of natural languages and the semantic primitives that drive these systems. The second section considers the syntactic locus of definiteness markers and their interaction with other material projected within the nominal domain. The final section presents studies demonstrating uses of definite markers which exceed their classical functions of marking uniqueness and/or familiarity.

The first collection of papers opens with Chapter 1, a work by Florian Schwarz (‘Weak and strong definite articles: Meaning and form across languages’) that elaborates upon conclusions drawn in his prolific thesis (Schwarz 2009), namely that many languages morphologically distinguish between a so-called weak definite, signalling that a referent is unique, and a strong definite, which refers to an anaphorically-accessible entity. He also observes that strong definite markers tend to be more phonologically complex than their weak counterparts. In this contribution, the author refines his original findings with additional facts drawn from a diverse sample of languages – including Hausa, Lakhota, Icelandic, Mauritian and Haitian Creole, etc., demonstrating more fine-grained semantic and distributional asymmetries between strong and weak definite markers. With this data in hand, the author contrasts the appropriateness of a conception of the weak vs. strong distinction as a binary contrast with a more scalar conception of definiteness encoding with uniqueness and anaphoricity at either end of the scale. As in the case of many other topics in the typological literature, the ‘discrete vs. scalar’ debate is highly relevant to any scholar taking definiteness marking seriously.

In Chapter 2, ‘Definiteness in Cuevas Mixtec’, Carlos Cisneros discusses a system of definiteness marking that seemingly fits the Schwarz (2009) weak vs. strong observation. In the case of Cuevas Mixtec, typically, bare nouns are interpreted as unique, whereas anaphoric definites are marked with an article derived from a classifier. However, nouns fall into one of three natural classes: (i) regular nouns following the pattern outlined above, (ii) nouns that are overtly marked in both unique and anaphoric environments, and (iii) nouns that cannot be marked with the article in question. The author clarifies that most nouns belonging to class (ii) are animate and he considers this referential property as underlying the split in definiteness marking within the language. This contribution highlights how definiteness encoding can interact with language-internal factors, such as the lexical classes of the nouns they are marking, adding a new dimension to the weak vs. strong definite marking generalization.

In Chapter 3, ‘Stong vs. weak definites: Evidence from Lithuanian adjectives’, Milena Sereikaite presents an interesting manifestation of the weak vs. strong distinction from Lithuanian. In this language, which does not have a class of articles in their own right, the distinction appears on certain adjectives. Adjectives have a long form, which aligns semantically with a strong definite description marking anaphoricity, and a short form signalling the uniqueness of the referent, aligning neatly with the observations in Schwarz 2009. The author analyzes the distribution and interpretation of strong and weak adjectival forms in various contexts in order to demonstrate that long, strong adjectives are felicitous only in contexts where the noun refers anaphorically to a previously introduced entity. By contrast, the short form is both found in indefinite contexts and in contexts requiring a uniqueness – i.e., a weak definite, reading. This paper provides an important contribution regarding the cross-linguistic variation in the expression of definiteness in different languages, especially languages that do not have straightforward article inventories.

In Chapter 4, entitled ‘On (in)definite expressions in American Sign Language (ASL)’, Ava Irani demonstrates that, contrary to previous accounts (cf. Koulidobrova & Lillo-Martin 2016), the interpretation of the pointing sign ‘IX’ aligns more with a strong definite article than a demonstrative in many cases, seeing as they are felicitous in anaphoric (and other relevant) contexts, and not those typically associated with demonstratives. She confirms that both NP and ‘IX’+NP configurations can form definite or indefinite descriptions such that ASL does not encode definiteness with this marker per se. Rather this sign must interact with the established referential loci to which the speaker makes reference in association with a noun in order to permit a definite interpretation. For these reasons, Irani suggests that definiteness in ASL may not be adequately captured along the classical dimensions of familiarity and uniqueness.

In Chapter 5, ‘A nascent definiteness marker in Yokot’an Maya’, Maurice Pico discusses the reduced form (‘ni’) of the distal demonstrative (‘jini’). The author discusses that, although previous descriptions have labelled this particle as a definite article, the semantic notions of uniqueness and familiarity do not align with actual usage patterns. In reporting the findings of an extensive textual analysis, he concludes that ‘ni’ in fact signals a topic shift, not definiteness proper. According to the author, these findings place the particle at an early phase of the generally accepted grammaticalization trajectory for definite articles out of demonstratives (the author cites Hawkins 2004).

In Chapter 6, ‘Definiteness across languages and in L2 acquisition’, Bert Le Bruyn contributes to the research program laid out in Ionin et al. (2004), which compared the (over)usage of definite articles by L2 speakers of English with a sample comprising speakers of Korean, Russian and Japanese. In this earlier work, the authors analyzed the overproduction of definite articles by these groups of L2 speakers as due to their usage of the article for specific referents, even where these referents were indefinite (i.e., the referent is known to the speaker, but not to the hearer). Le Bruyn performs two tests regarding the usage of English definite articles on Mandarin L1 speakers. The first test demonstrated that these speakers did not comply with the findings from the earlier study (Ionin et al. 2004) – i.e., they did not overgenerate definiteness marking on the basis of speaker-oriented specificity. The second test examined their usage of the definite article on the basis of foregrounding and noteworthiness, and he found that Mandarin L1 speakers did in fact overproduce definite forms when referring to non-specific, backgrounded referents. This paper is a call to expand the domain of inquiry for L1 effects upon L2 acquisition with particular attention to definite marking from speakers of article-less languages.

The second section of this volume aims to shed light on the syntactic loci of definiteness markers in various languages and how these interact with other material projected into the extended nominal domain. The first paper in this section, Chapter 7, ‘Licensing D in classifier languages and ‘numeral blocking’’ by David Hall presents an analysis focusing mostly on two classifier languages, Wenzhou Wu and Weining Ahmao, which questions earlier treatments of definiteness in such languages (e.g., Cheng & Sybesma 1999). Put simply, he provides an alternative analysis to a classic puzzle; in many classifier languages, classifier-noun combinations can be interpreted as definite, but this interpretation is not available for number-classifier-noun configurations. In contrast to an analysis where the number projection intervenes between the classifier’s generation site (ClP) and the DP, blocking its movement to D so that it cannot receive a definite interpretation (cf. Simpson 2005 for Mandarin), the author suggests that the classifier-noun and number-classifier-noun configurations are structurally distinct. Crucially, he suggests that the number-classifier component of the latter configuration forms a constituent in its own right so that the classifier can no longer move independently to the D layer in order to receive a definite interpretation. The author provides data from several disparate classifier languages to demonstrate how this analysis might be extended to other systems and how it might help us to better understand the interplay between definiteness and other functional material in noun-internal syntax.

In Chapter 8, ‘On kinds and anaphoricity in languages without definite articles’, Miloje Despic contrasts the interpretational possibilities for bare nouns in several languages that do not have definite articles, including Serbian, Turkish, Japanese, Mandarin and Hindi. She demonstrates that many of these languages permit anaphoric interpretations with bare nominals, often in conjunction with the presence of number marking, confirming earlier accounts (Dayal 2004). On a typological level, this paper strengthens this earlier claim by empirically demonstrating that anaphoric readings are strictly available in languages where bare nominals referring to kinds can receive number marking. On theoretical grounds, the author adheres to the conception that bare nominals ought not to receive anaphoric interpretations because they are NPs lacking the crucial DP-layer required for a definite meaning. She contributes to a body of literature (e.g., Chierchia 1998, Dayal 2004) that posits a solution outside of the syntax proper by invoking semantic type-shifting operations. This work highlights how certain facets of definiteness may be better treated (inside and) outside of the narrow syntax.

In Chapter 9, ‘Definiteness in Russian bare nominal kinds’, Olga Borik and Maria Teresa Espinal treat a similar puzzle to that in the preceding paper, namely the interpretation of bare nominal referring to kinds. They suggest that bare singular nouns are interpreted as definite kinds when they are found in the appropriate type of predicate, namely kind-level predicates (e.g., ‘the panda is on the verge of extinction’ – from p. 294). In contrast to the assumptions from Chapter 8, Borik and Espinal posit that Russian does have the crucial DP-layer, responsible for definite interpretations, even without articles, providing elaborate syntactic and semantic data to justify this position. Together these two chapters provide valuable insight into the relationship between definiteness and kind-reference across diverse languages, and each represents a different side of the DP vs. NP debate (i.e., the split DP hypothesis).

The final section of this volume is concerned with atypical uses of definite nouns beyond signalling a uniqueness and familiarity interpretation. The first two papers in this section treat so-called weak referentials – also confusingly labelled weak definites – as in the English example ‘we’ve both seen the doctor twice this week’ where the doctor does not refer to a unique or familiar individual, and can refer to a different doctor at each instance for each individual. In Chapter 10, ‘A morpho-semantic account of weak definites and Bare Institutional Singulars (BIS) in English’, Adina Williams analyzes cases such as ‘going to the store’, an instance of a weak definite, and ‘going to school’, where ‘school’ is a BIS. For the author, weak definites and BIS’s are two classes of weak nominals that have crucial structural features in common accounting for their shared semantic and syntactic behaviour. Crucially, however, no noun belongs to both classes and membership is determined idiosyncratically on a root-by-root basis. She discussed how both have reduced syntactic structures, lacking the number projection (NumP) associated with full nominals – which is unsurprising given that they cannot receive plural marking and retain weak reference (e.g., #‘going to the stores’, #’going to schools’), and neither can accept modifiers such as ‘good’, ‘red’, ‘expensive’ (i.e., high adjectives – see pp. 334-335). She discusses many other traits that these weak nominal constructions have in common. The author’s analysis captures both the number-neutral semantics shared by both weak definites and BIS nominals in English and their inherent lexical idiosyncrasies.

In Chapter 11, ‘Is the weak definite a generic? An experimental investigation’, Thaís Maíra Machado de Sá et al. present data from an extensive corpus analysis project and four separate experiments that shed light on an important question: whether weak definite nominals are in fact a subtype of generic definite nominals (e.g., ‘In the XVIII century, hygiene rules were introduced into the hospital in the Western world’ – p. 348). This is not a straightforward question given that neither refer to a certain unique (and familiar) individual, among other shared traits (c.f. Aguilar-Guevara & Zwarts 2011). Firstly, as regards the corpus analysis, the authors present quantitative evidence from Brazilian Portuguese (BP) that generic and weak definite nominals distribute rather differently. Not only were weak definites more common and occurred much more frequently in object position, there were no instances where weak and generic definites were found in complementary distribution on the basis of syntactic role or lexical aspect. To complement these findings, the authors conducted four experiments on American English speakers combining online survey-taking and laboratory-based methodologies. The first experiment presented a judgement task to determine whether generic, weak and regular objects were referring to an individual or a category. In the second experiment, participants performed a sentence completion task that crucially contained an anaphoric continuation. The third experiment was essentially a free completion task established along the lines of the second experiment, reporting highly similar findings. The final task was similar to the preceding two except that the participant was asked to repeat the noun in their completions. Ultimately, the results from each of these experiments pointed to regular and weak definites patterning distinctly from generic definites. In the case of the first experiment, generics were almost always considered as referring to categories, whereas weak definites behaved more like regular definites referring to individuals. In the second experiment, generics did not allow interpretations with anaphors, whereas weak definites aligned with regular definites allowing the use of anaphors in continuations. These findings were essentially replicated across the third and fourth experiments. Taken together, the authors provide a great deal of evidence from corpus-based and experimental research to demonstrate that weak definites are not treated as a subtype of generic definite nominals in either BP or English. Ultimately, this paper stresses the fact that separate analyses are needed to properly capture the differences between weak definite nouns and generic definites, both of which are crucially distinct from the analyses purported for regular definite nouns. This contribution demonstrates the need to achieve a language-internal typology of definiteness constructions in addition to a cross-linguistic typology.

In Chapter 12, ‘Most vs. the most in languages where the more means most’, Elizabeth Coppock and Linnea Strand discuss one of the more frequent uses of definiteness markers beyond marking uniqueness and/or familiarity, namely in superlative constructions. The authors focus their study on several Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian) and Greek, and they begin with a thorough comparative survey based upon various aspects of their distribution and their meaning – strictly adjectival/adverbial uses, quality and/or quantity readings, optionality of definiteness marking, etc. For the authors, the descriptive facts are captured as the dynamic relationship between the pressure to mark uniqueness – superlatives are inherently unique, and the fact that these languages tend to avoid combining the definite article with event- and degree-predicates. The authors combine these observations into a formal compositional analysis that can be used as a model to capture the implementation of definiteness markers in superlative constructions in other languages.

In Chapter 13, the final contribution in this work, ‘Definiteness, partitivity, and domain restriction: A fresh look at definite reduplication’, Urtzi Etxeberria and Anastasia Giannakidou draw a connection between multiple definite marking (i.e., definite reduplication) and partitive interpretations via domain restriction. Although this contribution focuses primarily on Greek data, the authors draw connections between these facts and observations and analyses regarding Basque, Salish and certain Slavic languages. The authors suggest that constructions with multiple definite markers are marking both the head noun as a unique definite, and another element (noun, adjective, etc.) as a restricted domain for that noun to be interpreted within. For instance, they provide a Greek example glossed as ‘the-red the-bikes are French’ in a context (in front of us there are red, blue, and yellow bikes – see pp. 442-443). In this case, the speaker refers to both a unique group of bikes which belong to the ‘red’-subgroup of bikes in this context. This example roughly sketches the analysis that the authors put forward for multiple definite constructions using a formal semantic approach. This contribution provides a treatment of the partitive(-like) usage of definites and outlines how this treatment might be amenable to some languages with such constructions, but not to others.


This volume presents a collection of high-quality articles that touch on various aspects of definiteness marking and/or interpretation without significant overlap in theoretical or methodological orientation, or the languages they study. On the one hand, the diversity of materials and analyses found in this work reflects the underlying variation found in definiteness marking across natural languages, and across the field of linguistics generally. For instance, just as Despic (Chapter 8) adopts the position that bare nouns are always NPs, and not DPs, Borik and Espinal (Chapter 9) provide ample evidence for certain bare nouns (at least in Russian) to behave like full DPs with a silent article. The fact that two competing positions are advocated in the same volume can be enlightening to scholars aiming at a holistic understanding of the approaches in the literature. In addition, taken together, the papers in this volume demonstrate the need to go beyond our preconceptions, particularly those associated with our methodological orientations, in order to address syntactic, semantic and functional subtleties regarding definiteness and to get the facts straight. On the other hand, it may be the case that this volume is too diverse regarding the target languages and the analytical approaches that it brings together. Although this criticism might be put forward for many proceedings-style volumes of this type and is not particular to this volume, I feel that this book amalgamates so many disparate analytical techniques and perspectives that it lacks coherence. For this reason, it is difficult to take away any meaningful generalizations per se that could be used to typologize definiteness across languages, as the title of the volume suggests.

For the reasons stated above, this work is best viewed as a collection of high-quality papers that ought to be considered in their own right. Each paper provides a thorough analysis that can be followed up by future work within its given domain and for the language(s) that it targets. Ultimately, this volume illustrates how little we actually know regarding the variation found across the definite systems of the world, and that fact in and of itself ought to inspire future work. A scholar interested in any facet of definiteness can find at least one meaningful paper in this volume and ought to take the time to read it.


Aguilar-Guevara, Ana & Joost Zwarts. 2011. Weak definites and reference to kinds. Proceedings of SALT 20. 179-196.

Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen & Rint Sybesma. 1999. Bare and not-so-bare nouns and the structure of NP. Linguistic Inquiry 30(4). 509-542.

Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language Semantics 6. 339-405.

Dayal, Veneeta. 2004. Number marking and (in)definiteness in kind terms. Linguistics and Philosophy 27. 393-450.

Hawkins, John. 2004. Efficiency and complexity in grammars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ionin, Tania, Heejeong Ko & Kenneth Wexler. 2004. Article semantics in L2 acquisition: The role of specificity. Language Acquisition 12(1). 3-69.

Koulidobrova, Elena & Diane Lillo-Martin. 2016. A ‘point’ of inquiry: The case of the (non-) pronominal IX in ASL. In Patrick Grosz & Pritty Patel-Grosz (eds.), The impact of pronominal form on interpretation (Studies in Generative Grammar). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 221-250.

Schwarz, Florian. 2009. Two types of definites in natural language. PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Simpson, Andrew. 2005. Classifiers and DP structure in Southeast Asian languages. In Richard Kayne & Guglielmo Cinque (eds.), The Oxford handbook of comparative syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 806-838.


Justin Case is a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Ottawa (Canada). His primary research interests include theoretical morphosyntax, description of understudied languages (Ecuadorian Siona - Tucanoan) and typology with a focus on nominal structures and differential object marking.

Page Updated: 06-Apr-2021