Daria Seres – (In)definiteness in natural languages

(In)definiteness is one of the core linguistic categories, associated with referential properties of nominal expressions and identification of objects. As a semantic-pragmatic category related to human cognition and communication it has been claimed to be universally present in natural language (Cummins 1998; Lyons 1999, among many others). The research and analysis of (in)definiteness and reference is relevant not only for linguistics but also for philosophy, cognitive science, computational linguistics, and communication science.

The expression of (in)definiteness in natural language is traditionally linked to the presence of articles. Nonetheless, around half of world languages do not have articles but apparently can still convey the reference of a nominal expression, albeit by different means (from constituent order and information structure to interaction with other nominal and verbal grammatical categories).

Definite expressions may have different forms (personal pronouns, proper names, demonstratives, NP with a definite article, bare NPs, universally quantified expressions) as well as different flavours. Even though this topic has been extensively investigated, there is no agreement in the semantic literature as to which concepts are needed to capture the meaning of expressions that convey definiteness, both intra- and cross-linguistically. Some of the key concepts are uniqueness (Russell 1905, Strawson 1950, Chierchia 1998, among others) and familiarity (Christophersen 1939, Heim 19829, among others), identifiability (Lyons 1999), but also determinacy (Coppock & Beaver 2015), salience (von Heusinger 1997; Barlew 2014) and maximal informativeness (von Fintel et al. 2014).

Indefinites are often taken as being in the complementary distribution of definite expressions, but some studies try to develop an independent theory of indefiniteness as well (Diesing 1992, Kratzer 1998, Heim 2011, among others).

The goal of this topic seminar is to discuss semantic theories of both definiteness and indefiniteness and analyse relevant semantic and pragmatic phenomena related to them, taking into consideration typologically different languages.