More definiteness – the familiarity approach

As I mentioned in my last post, in studying definiteness, logical and semantic approaches tend to concentrate on issues such as existence and uniqueness and the truth or falsehood of a proposition in the real world. Discourse approaches, however, have been more interested in the pragmatics of definiteness, particularly the dynamic between the speaker and the hearer. For instance, I began my last post with the following pair of sentences:

(1a) I bought the car today.

(1b) I bought a car today.

Russell was primarily concerned with naming expressions such as “The King of France” or “Mr Jones” which have only one possible referent, but the expression “the car” in the sentence above can have an almost limitless number of possible referents. On the other hand, in the context, the phrases “the car” and “a car” have the same unique referent. What influences the choice of one phrase over the other?

The familiarity theory is usually traced to Paul Christophersen, who argued that the distinction between definite and indefinite noun phrases has to do with whether the hearer was presumed to be acquainted with the referent. Thus the difference between the two sentences in example 1 is that the car under discussion is known to the hearer in the first, but not in the second.

Note that Chafe has suggested that the term identifiability is preferable to familiarity. The distinction is that the hearer may not necessarily know the referent, but definiteness signals that they are in a position to identify it. Identifiability can be related to the prior introduction of a referent in the discourse (anaphora), the presence of the referent in the immediate situation (deixis), or the general knowledge of the hearer.

However, identifiability may not always be an adequate explanation of definiteness either. Lyons notes that so-called associative uses are the most problematic. In the associative use, a noun phrase is considered definite by its relation to a previous referent as in 2:

(2) I took a taxi to the airport, but the driver got lost.

Here it is understood that the driver is connected to the previously mentioned taxi. However, other than linking him to the taxi, the hearer is in no position to identify the particular driver. In such a case, definiteness may indeed be more about quantification than identifiability. That is, the sentence merely expresses that the taxi had a driver.

Fraurud has suggested, however, that the individuation of the referent may also be a factor. The identifiability approach tends to treat individuals as the prototypical referent, but individuals are identifiable in a different way from other kinds of entities such as classes and types, of which we may have general-lexical, but not personal, knowledge. Thus all that is necessary is to identify the driver as the taxi driver (there will be more on this in a future post).

Identifiability seems to be the prototypical use of definiteness cross-linguistically, and therefore, Lyons suggests that in general definiteness grammaticalizes this pragmatic category.  In fact, in the majority of cases, definite articles develop from demonstratives. However, it is reasonable to assume that over time in some languages the category of definiteness could be extended to other related uses such as inclusiveness as we saw earlier with plural and mass nouns. In this regard, it is interesting to note that indefinite articles tend to develop after definite articles from quantifiers such as one.

Additional Bibliography

Chafe, Wallace. “Givenness, Contrastiveness, Definiteness, Subjects, Topics, and Point of View.” Pages 25-55 in Subject and Topic. Edited by Charles N. Li. New York: Academic Press, 1976.

Christophersen, Paul. The Articles: A Study of Their Theory and Use in English. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1939.

Fraurud, Kari. “Cognitive Ontology and NP Form.” Pages 65-88 in Reference and Referent Accessibility. Edited by Thorstein Fretheim, and Jeanette K. Gundel. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1996.

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