Chapter in:English Noun Phrases from a Functional-Cognitive Perspective: Current issues
Edited by Lotte Sommerer and Evelien Keizer
[Studies in Language Companion Series 221] 2022
The rivalry between definiteness and specificity
The grammaticalization of definiteness in DP emergence
This paper addresses the question of why Present-day English (hereafter PDE) grammaticalized definiteness, but not specificity, as a D head. Two semantic properties are involved in the use of nominals: [definite] and [specific]. Definiteness means that a nominal marked as [+definite] indicates that the speaker assumes that the hearer shares the speaker’s presupposition of the existence of an individual. The specific reading is characterized by the certainty of the speaker about the identity of the referent. Specificity is knowledge only held by the speaker. The PDE article system is based on definiteness, while specificity is not involved in article choice in English. This is puzzling because investigations of language acquisition have shown that article choice is cross-linguistically based on specificity rather than definiteness, irrespective of learners’ first language. Thus, specificity seems to be more suitable for a D head. I propose two reasons why the PDE article system is based on definiteness. Firstly, person properties were encoded into the D head since definiteness is to be assimilated to the category of person. Another reason, which I only hint at in this paper, might be intersubjectification: the shift of attention from the speaker to the hearer. Specificity involves the speaker only, while definiteness marking involves both the speaker and the hearer. These two are essential processes of grammaticalization, i.e. DP emergence.