Bare nouns

A definite interpretation of (singular) bare nouns has been observed in some languages, see e.g. (1)-(2). The examples in the literature usually involve anaphoric/”familiarity” definites, but “uniqueness” definites can also be bare.

(1) Familiarity definite reading: 
Widziałam kota. Kot jadł.
1sg. saw   cat     cat ate
“I saw a cat. The cat was eating.”

(2) Uniqueness definite reading:
Prezydent podpisał ustawę.
president   signed    bill   
The president signed a bill.”

The definite interpretation of bare nouns in articleless languages is derived, under Chierchia’s (1998) account, by a covert ι type shift. English bare nouns are not covertly type-shifted by ι, and thus do not obtain a definite interpretation, as type shifting is regulated by two mechanisms: (i) the blocking principle and (ii) the ranking of the available type-shifting operators. As for (i), it postulates that the presence of overt determiners (definite or indefinite) in the language blocks the use of the corresponding covert type-shifting operator. Thus it ensures that English bare nouns never receive a definite interpretation, which is always blocked by definite determiner the. Analogously, singular count nouns never obtain an indefinite quantificational interpretation (which would be obtained by an Ǝ type shift), as it is blocked by the presence of the overt indefinite determiner a which is argued to have the same meaning as Ǝ (unlike some). With regards to (ii), the ranking of type-shifting operators says that a kind-type shifting operator (‘∩’) is the default type-shifting operator and thus must be applied, if defined, i.e.,  ∩ > {ι, Ǝ}. Chierchia uses this system to predict the availability and interpretation of bare nouns in Mandarin, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, English, and Russian.

We are interested in languages where singular bare nouns can have definite interpretations:

  • What is the syntax of these definites: are they DPs or NPs?
  • Is the blocking principle universal? Languages with two kinds of definites where “uniqueness” definites are expressed by a bare noun appear to contradict the blocking principle: how can these cases be explained? Are the overt determiners in fact demonstrative determiners which do not block ι? Is there a covert uniqueness article with the meaning in (3b) in these cases? Or are there in fact two kinds of ι typeshifts, corresponding to the two kinds of definite determiners in (3) (see Moroney 2021), with the option of blocking them separately? Why is it the uniqueness reading that is conveyed using bare nouns, not the familiarity reading?
  • Is the ranking of type shifting operators (∩ > {ι, Ǝ}) universal? Chierchia predicts that bare singular nouns truly get both an existential (wide and narrow scope) reading and a definite interpretation. However, there were proposals that the different available readings better analyzed as only definite (ι > Ǝ) (Dayal 2004) or only existential (Ǝ > ι) (Heim 2011). Is there a true definite interpretation of bare nouns arising via an ι typeshift? If no, how are the seemingly definite readings obtained? If yes, what range of uses and meanings does the ι typeshift have, can it e.g., also be used for seemingly indefinite examples (Dayal 2004)? What is the role of uniqueness? Is there cross-linguistic variation with respect to the availability of the definite interpretation?
  • What are alternative ways of conveying definiteness in articleless languages? In articleless languages, different other ways to convey definiteness have been observed, e.g. information structure, word order, adjective form, and case.