Specificity, definiteness and article systems across languages

40th Annual Meeting of the DGfS (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft)
7-9 March, 2018, University of Stuttgart

Mission statement

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.

Selected literature

Abbott, B. 2003. Definiteness and indefiniteness. In: Horn L. and G. Ward (eds). Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell. 122-49.

Brocher, A., S. Lindemann and K. von Heusinger. 2016. Effects of Information Status and Uniqueness Status on Referent Management in Discourse Comprehension and Planning. Discourse Processes. December 2016. pp. 1-25.

Czardybon, A. 2017. Definiteness in a Language without Articles – A Study on Polish. PhD Dissertation. Dissertations in Language and Cognition, SFB991. Vol. 3. Düsseldorf University Press.

Dayal, V. 2017. Determining (In)definiteness in the Absence of Articles. In Hohaus, V. and W. Rothe (ads). Proceedings of TripleA 3: Fieldwork Perspectives on the Semantics of African, Asian and Austronesian Languages. University of Tübingen.

Dryer, M. S. 2013a. Definite Articles. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at

Dryer, M. S. 2013b. Indefinite Articles. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at

Hawkins J. 1978. Definiteness and indefiniteness. London: Croom Helm

Hawkins J. 1991. On (in)definite articles: Implicatures and (un)grammaticality prediction. Journal of Linguistics 27: 405–42.

Hawkins J. 2004. Efficiency and complexity in grammars. Oxford: Oxford University Pres

Heim, I. 2011. Definiteness and indefiniteness. In von Heusinger, K., C. Maienborn and P. Portner (eds). Semantics. An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. Vol. 2. Berlin: de Gruyter, 996-1025.

Hewson, J. and V. Bubenik. 2006. From Case to Adposition. The development of configurational syntax in Indo-European languages. John Benjamins.

Jenks, P. (to appear). Articulated definiteness without articles. Linguistic Inquiry.

Lyons, Ch. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Löbner, Sebastian. 1985. Definiteness. Journal of Semantics 4. 279-326.

Löbner, Sebastian. 2011. Concept Types and Determination. Journal of Semantics 28. 279-333.

Ullrich, J. 2016. Lakhota Grammar Handbook. Lakhota Language Consortium.

Ortmann, Albert (2014) Definite article asymmetries and concept types: semantic and pragmatic uniqueness. In: Thomas Gamerschlag, Doris Gerland, Rainer Osswald & Wiebke Petersen (eds.) Frames and concept types: Applications in Language and Philosophy, 293-321. Dordrecht: Springer.

Schaeffer, J. and L. Matthewson. 2005. Grammar and Pragmatics in the Acquisition of Article Systems. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 23(53).

Schroeder, Ch. 2006. Articles and article systems in some areas of Europe. In Bernini, G. and M. L. Schwarz (eds). Pragmatic organization of discourse in the languages of Europe. Mouton de Gryuter.

Sharma D. (2005). Language transfer and discourse universals in Indian article use. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 27. 535-566.

Šimík, R. 2014. Definiteness and articleless languages. Manuscript. University of Potsdam/SFB632.

Šimík, R. & M. Wierzba (to appear). Expression of information structure in West Slavic: Modeling the impact of prosodic and word order factors. Language.

Tanaka, S. 2011. Deixis und Anaphorik. De Gruyter.