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

Veneeta Dayal, Yale University

Abstract: 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 the perspective of languages different from English.

We first look at variations in generic terms based on number (Dinosaurs are extinct and The dinosaur is extinct). Do the observed differences between them derive from the presence or absence of definiteness marking or from singular vs. plural marking? Languages that mark definiteness on singular and plural kind terms as well as languages that do not mark definiteness on either prove instructive.

We also consider (in)definiteness at the ordinary individual level in languages without articles and establish that, appearances notwithstanding, bare NPs in such languages are not bona fide indefinites. Their indefinite readings are derivative on their
kind-level meanings, except in specific syntactic positions such as the direct object position. Can this perspective on article-less languages help explain observations about the second language acquisition of articles?

In discussing these two phenomena effort will be made to connect insights from the linguistic literature with insights from some literature from experimental philosophy and psychology and psycholinguistics.