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In linguistics, definiteness is a semantic feature of noun phrases (NPs), distinguishing between referents or senses that are identifiable in a given context (definite noun phrases) and those which are not (indefinite noun phrases). The prototypical definite NP picks out a unique, familiar, specific referent.[1]

There is considerable variation in the expression of definiteness across languages, and some languages such as Japanese do not generally mark it.[2] In others, such as English, it is usually marked by the selection of determiner.[3] In still other languages, such as Danish, definiteness is marked morphologically.[4]

The theoretical distinction between grammatical definiteness and cognitive identifiability has the advantage of enabling us to distinguish between a discrete (grammatical) and a non-discrete (cognitive) category.[5][p. 84][a]

Use in different languages


In English, definiteness is usually marked by the selection of determiner. Certain determiners, such as a, an, many, and some, along with numbers (e.g., four items), typically mark an NP as indefinite. Others, including the, that, and genitive NPs (e.g., my brother) typically mark the NP as definite.[3]

A number of tests have been proposed to distinguish definite from indefinite NPs. "Each has a foundation in intuition, as well as some degree of grammatical effect. However, it is not clear that any of them corresponds cleanly to formal categories."[1]

  1. If an NP can be put into an existential clause such as there is NP at the door (e.g., there are two wolves at the door), it is likely indefinite.[6]
  2. "The concept of identifiability expressed by the definite article is best understood in terms of pre-empting a question with which?"[3]

Other languages

  • In Basque, definiteness is marked by a phrasal clitic.[7] (p. 76) emakume ("woman"), emakume-a (woman-ART: "the woman"), emakume ederr-a (woman beautiful-ART: "the beautiful woman"); Romanian: om ("man"), om-ul (man-ART: "the man"), om-ul bun (man-ART good: "the good man") or bun-ul om (good-ART man: "the good man")
  • In Albanian definiteness is marked by a noun affix.[7] (p. 121) djalë ("boy"); djal-i (djal-ART: "the boy"); djal-i i madh (djal-ART i madh: "the elder son"); vajzë ("girl"); vajz-a (vajz-ART: "the girl"); vajz-a e bukur (vajz-ART e bukur: "the pretty girl")
  • In Arabic definiteness is marked by a prefix on both noun and adjective.[7] (p. 91) (al-kit?b al-kab?r) with two instances of al- (DEF-book-DEF-big, literally, "the book the big")
  • in Hungarian definiteness is marked by distinct verbal forms.[7] (p. 86) olvasok egy könyvet (read-1sg.pres.INDEF a "I read a book") versus olvasom a könyvet (read-1sg.pres.DEF the "I read the book")
  • No marking. The Japanese ? (watashi wa hon o motteiru "I have a/the book") is ambiguous between definite and indefinite readings.[2]

Germanic, Romance, Celtic, Semitic, and auxiliary languages generally have a definite article, often preposed but in some cases postposed. Many other languages do not. Some examples are Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and modern Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian. When necessary, languages of this kind may indicate definiteness by other means such as demonstratives.[7][page needed]

It is common for definiteness to interact with the marking of case in certain syntactic contexts. In many languages, a direct object receives distinctive marking only if it is definite. For example, in Turkish, the direct object in the sentence adam? gördüm (meaning "I saw the man") is marked with the suffix -? (indicating definiteness)[7] (p. 204). The absence of the suffix on a direct object in Turkish means that it is indefinite and, in the absence of the indefinite article bir, no longer explicitly singular: adam gördüm ("I saw a man/I saw men"), .

In Serbo-Croatian, in the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian, and, to a lesser extent in Slovene, definiteness can be expressed morphologically on prenominal adjectives.[8] The short form of the adjective is interpreted as indefinite, while the long form is definite or specific:

  • short (indefinite): Serbo-Croatian nov grad "a new city"; Lithuanian balta knyga "a white book"
  • long (definite): novi grad "the new city, a certain new city"; baltoji knyga "the white book, a certain white book"

In some languages, the definiteness of the object affects the transitivity of the verb. In the absence of peculiar specificity marking, it also tends to affect the telicity of mono-occasional predications.

In some Scandinavian languages, such as Swedish, definite nouns inflect with a dedicated set of suffixes. This is known in Swedish as the grammatical category of Species.[]

See also


  1. ^ a b Abbott, Barbara (2006). "Definiteness and indefiniteness". In Horn, R. L.; Ward, G (eds.). The handbook of pragmatics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 122-149. doi:10.1002/9780470756959. ISBN 9780470756959.
  2. ^ a b "Japanese/Grammar - Study Guides, open books for an open world". en.Study Retrieved .
  3. ^ a b c Huddleston; Pullum (2002). Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Wagner, Dr Jennifer. "Danish Articles and Demonstratives". Retrieved .
  5. ^ Knud., Lambrecht (1996). Information structure and sentence form : topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-316-03949-6. OCLC 1100677082.
  6. ^ Milsark, Gary (1977). "Toward an explanation of certain peculiarities of the existential construction in English". Linguistic Analysis. 3: 1-29.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Lyons, Christopher (1999). Definiteness. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-36835-3.
  8. ^ Aljovi?, Nadira (2002). "Long adjectival inflection and specificity in Serbo-Croatian". Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes. 31 (31): 27-42. doi:10.4000/rlv.351. Retrieved .


Further reading

External links

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