Two Kinds of Definites Cross-linguistically

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Abstract

Definite descriptions constitute a core device for managing reference in natural language, and their semantics has been explored in great detail within formal approaches. There also is a rich descriptive literature on cross-linguistic phenomena concerning definites, but the theoretical literature has only recently begun to incorporate a wider range of languages and phenomena in this realm. The present paper provides an illustrative overview of one class of recently discussed cross-linguistic phenomena, focusing on languages that differentiate between different kinds of definites (namely German, Fering, Akan, Mauritian Creole, Lakhota, Hausa, and Haitian Creole) and the theoretical views that seem to capture the two types most straightforwardly: one type of definite, involving ‘weak articles’, is based on uniqueness, whereas ‘strong article’ definites crucially involve an anaphoric link. The contrast extends to so-called bridging uses in interesting ways, and the fact that there is a striking resemblance in the contrast across typologically unrelated languages points to a fundamental distinction that natural languages can utilize in organizing their referential system. The paper closes with an outlook on directions for future research.

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