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Linguistik Zentrum Zürich

Indefinite-definite articles in Romance and English (IDaRoE)


In this project, we aim to investigate an otherwise overlooked usage of the definite article (non-specific uses of all kinds), namely definite noun phrases in contexts where only indefinite readings are allowed. This type of definite noun phrases is attested quite early in the history of Iberoromance and German and has been discussed in the semantics literature on English. The following are examples from Italian, Spanish and English:
(1) In cantina, ci sono i topi. (‘Mice are in the basement’)
(2) Se Mario avesse la macchina, potrebbe andara in Spagna. ('If Mario had the car, he could go to Spain.’)
(3) Now he can go to the college and he can go to the school, but if he hasn’t got religion, he’s an educated fool and that’s all. 
All instances of ‘indefinite definite articles’ represent a puzzle for referential semantics, nominal morphosyntax, cross-linguistic comparison/typology and variationist linguistics. This raises the question of what drives the alternation between the presence vs. absence of an article in certain contexts and why such definite nouns are more widespread in some languages/varieties than in others.
The overall, scientific objective of the planned collaboration on ‘indefinite definite articles’ is to learn more about these structures from a cross-linguistic perspective (descriptive information from corpora and experiments). We aim to delimit the existing types of these occurrences in Romance and English, their potential text genre sensitivity and their semantics.