Two kinds of definites

It has been observed for many languages that there are two kinds of definite descriptions, one predominantly used to refer back to something previously mentioned (‘familiarity definites’), the other for entities which are mutually known to be unique due to world knowledge (‘uniqueness definites’), see (1) for an example.

(1)     a.     A man walked in. I greeted the man.             (‘familiarity’)
    b.    (out of the blue:) The moon is shining.             (‘uniqueness’)

We are interested in languages that use two different kinds of definite expressions in such contexts:

  • What is the form of the definite expressions? Is the uniqueness definite prosodically/morphologically weaker than the familiarity definite?
  • What is the syntax / compositional semantics of the respective definite expression? Is one composed of the other? Can we find evidence from interaction with other (e.g. indefinite) articles?
  • What is the correct notion of “uniqueness”/”familiarity”? Is “anti-uniqueness” also required? What is the relation between familiarity definites and demonstratives?
  • Which expression is used in contexts where the two expressions are in competition (i.e. if the referent is unique AND familiar)? How can we explain inter- and intralanguage variation? What can we learn from other cases of competition (e.g., with indefinites, demonstratives, or pronouns)?

Two more detailed topics to be explored in the network might be: (i) the interaction of indefinite and definite determiners, since in several unrelated languages, the determiner used to express familiarity can co-occur with a determiner expressing specificity / indefiniteness, and (ii) definite DPs with relative clauses, since the `familiarity’ determiner can be used in these cases even if the referent is new. Both topics help to shed further light on the syntax, compositional semantics and meaning of `familiarity’ definites.

Last but not least, we are interested in languages with different kinds of definite expressions which do not fall neatly into these two categories (familiarity vs. uniqueness): languages that make a different kind of divide, languages with three or more kinds of definite expressions.