Annual Henry and Theresa Biggs Lecture: Genericity and (In)Definiteness: A Cross-linguistic Perspective

Dr. Veneeta Dayal, Yale University



Our views of genericity, a universal semantic concept, are largely shaped by English, the language in which genericity was first studied. Our views on (in)definiteness, also a universal concept, are also influenced by English where the study of the indefinite-definite distinction has its roots. While these concepts are universal, their expression is subject to significant cross-linguistic variation. In this talk, genericity and (in)definiteness are considered from a perspective shaped by cross-linguistic considerations.

I start with the observation that all natural languages have the ability to make statements about individuals at two levels – at the level of the kind/species and at the level of objects/ordinary individuals. There are two generalizations that I focus on are:

The first generalization is that no language is known to have a dedicated determiner for kind reference. Languages either use the definite determiner for this purpose or a bare NP (a noun phrase with a null determiner, if you will). Why should that be? And why should it be the definite determiner that is co-opted for kind reference?

The dinosaur is extinct.

Dinosaurs are extinct.

The second generalization is that there are systematic differences between singular kind terms (in English the dinosaur; in Italian il dinosaur; in Russian dinozavr) and plural kind terms (in English dinosaurs; in Italian i dinosauri; in Russian dinozavry). Some of them are independent of whether there is or is not an overt determiner and some of them depend on the presence or absence of an overt determiner. What does this variation tell us about the nature of kinds and kind-reference?

The final part of the talk considers generic statements, considering insights from some recent work in experimental philosophy from the perspective of cross-linguistic variation:

A dog barks when it is hungry.

The dog barks when it is hungry.

Dogs bark when they are hungry.