David Beaver (UT Austin) will give a colloquium today (Friday Nov. 15) at 3:30 PM in the Greenberg Room, followed by a departmental social.
DEFINITENESS AND DETERMINACY
Abstract: If we take as our starting point Russell’s theory of descriptions, the absence of explicit marking of the definite/indefinite distinction in many languages, e.g. Russian or Korean, would appear to be a serious lacuna. How come that absence doesn’t hamper the ability of speakers of those languages to express and distinguish singular and existential propositions? The theory I will argue for, among other things, provides an answer to that question. The typical absence of definite or indefinite determiners on Russian nominals is of little significance for Russians for the simple reason that definite and indefinite determiners do not contribute to ordinary content at all. The meaning contribution which we often take to be associated with them is rather the work of the same universally available type-shifting operations (Partee 86, Chierchia 98) that are available both in English and in languages like Russian.
What, then, is definiteness? I argue that, at least in English, definiteness is the morpho-syntactic marking of a non-existential uniqueness presupposition. Prior literature has blurred the issue of what definiteness is by confusing the issue of what is marked by a definite with what is denoted by definite DPs. I distinguish between definiteness and determinacy: a denotation is determinate if it is term-like (individual denoting), and indeterminate if it is existential. I then show that definiteness is independent from determinacy, in that both definite and indefinite DPs can have both determinate and indeterminate denotations. The confusion in prior literature derives, I argue, from independent principles which usually (but not always) lead definite descriptions to produce determinate denotations, and indefinite descriptions to have indeterminate denotations.
Having introduced these distinctions, I sketch how the analysis can be extended to cover possessive descriptions (e.g. “her talk”) and bare plurals (“talks”), arguing that neither is marked for definiteness. I show why possessive descriptions usually (but not always) have determinate denotations, and how indeterminate and kind denotations are derived for bare plurals. In the process I will postulate significant revisions to the cross-linguistic picture of nominal denotations proposed by Chierchia, Dayal and others, as well as to other relatively minimal theories of definiteness (e.g. Winter, Szabo).
(Joint work with Elizabeth Coppock. Draft paper available on request.)
All are welcome!
Upcoming talks: Peter Graff, January 24.