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Definiteness and Determinacy

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David Beaver, The University of Texas at Austin (Based on joint work with Elizabeth Coppock, University of Gothenburg)

On Russell’s theory of the definite/indefinite distinction, as on most contemporary theories, articles make an essential contribution to the meaning of most utterances. The typical absence of explicit marking of that distinction in some languages, e.g. Russian, Korean, Hindi or Mandarin, would then appear to be a peculiar lacuna. How come the absence doesn’t hamper the ability of speakers of those language’s to express and distinguish singular and existential propositions?

This paper distinguishes between definiteness and determinacy. Definiteness is seen as a morphological category which, in English, marks a (weak) uniqueness presupposition, while determinacy consists in denoting an individual. Both definite and indefinite descriptions are argued to be fundamentally predicative, presupposing uniqueness but not existence, and to acquire existential import through general type-shifting operations that apply not only to definites, but also indefinites and possessives. The type-shifting rules are exactly the same as those independently motivated for typically article-less languages, Russian, etc..Thus, on the view I will describe, the issue of whether a language typically marks definiteness is separated from the question of how we choose between determinate and indeterminate readings.

Quite apart from making the existence of languages like Russian seem unsurprising, the resulting theory explains a range of new data that no previous theory of definites captures. This data involves interactions between definites and superlatives, and between definites and exclusives like “only”. On natural assumptions about exclusives, both Russellian and Strawsonian analyses of definites fail to predict any difference between (i) and (ii) or between (ii) and (iii) as regards the number of talks that will be given, while the minimal theory I will describe correctly predicts that while (i) and (iii) imply one talk, (ii) implies more than one.

A) David won’t give the talk today. —> exactly one talk. B) David won’t give the only talk today. —> more than one talk C) Ash won’t fall asleep in the only talk today. —> exactly one talk.

Note: For those seeking further motivation or details of the formal proposal, a draft paper is available at . Comments are welcome!

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