Specificity, definiteness and article systems across languages
40th Annual Meeting of the DGfS (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft)
7-9 March, 2018, University of Stuttgart
It has been observed that a multitude of the world’s languages can do without formal marking of the concepts of definiteness and specificity through articles (see e.g. Dryer 2013a-b, Dayal 2017, Czardybon 2017, Šimík 2014). At the same time languages like some North American Indian languages have been described as having up to 12 different articles (e.g. Lakota, Ullrich 2016), making fine-grained distinctions not only with respect to animacy and countability, but also with respect to different types of givenness in discourse.
One of the main questions that inspires this workshop is how languages with and without an article system go about referent coding and helping the hearer to recognize whether a given NP should be interpreted as definite, specific or non-specific.
Hawkins (2004) regards the use of articles as pragmatically redundant, assuming that the discourse context should suffice to determine whether a noun phrase is definite or not. Tanaka (2011) suggests that a language without an article system like Japanese employs deictic strategies through all levels of grammar, while a language like English is said to use more anaphoric than deictic strategies in discourse and grammar. In order to explain the development of article systems, certain grammatical features, e.g. the loss or lack of certain nominal categories, have been argued to be influential. For example, Hewson & Bubenik (2006) find a correlation between the loss of case marking and the rise of an article system.
Hence a second central question of the workshop concerns the grammatical consequences of having or lacking an article system.
Different typologies have been suggested with respect to articles systems. Jenks (to appear) assumes three types of languages: (i) bipartite languages with two separate articles for anaphoric and unique definites (e.g. Germanic languages and Lakhota), (ii) marked anaphoric languages with a definite article restricted to anaphoric definite environments (e.g. Fante Akan and some Wu Chinese dialects) and (iii) generally marked definite languages with a single definite form used in both contexts (e.g. English). Schaeffer and Matthewson (2005) propose that languages differ in that article distinctions rely on the state of the common ground between speaker and hearer in some, while others rely on speaker beliefs.
So a third question concerns the specific semantic-pragmatic parameters along which article systems may vary.
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