Sorting out the concepts behind definiteness

Workshop at DGfS 2019

Bremen 6–8 March 2019

Organized by Carla Bombi (University of Potsdam) & Radek Šimík (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Invited speakers

Elizabeth Coppock (Boston University)

Peter Jenks (UC Berkeley)

Workshop description

There is no agreement in the literature as to which and how many concepts are needed to capture the meaning of definite descriptions, whether intra- or cross-linguistically. A continuing controversy surrounds even the most agreed-upon notions like UNIQUENESS and FAMILIARITY, while novel evidence has been put forth to support the relevance of various other notions (established or new), such as (IN)DETERMINACY (Coppock & Beaver 2015), SALIENCE (von Heusinger 1997; Barlew 2014) and MAXIMAL INFORMATIVENESS (von Fintel et al. 2014).

From a theoretical perspective, the question arises whether any of these notions can be dispensed with. Much work in the tradition of formal semantics, for instance, maintains that familiarity is either theoretically unappealing (Elbourne 2013) or that it can be derived from uniqueness (Beaver & Coppock 2015). Despite these and other reductionist attempts, theories of definiteness must ultimately face the complexity of the empirical landscape—both intra- and cross-linguistic: definite expressions come in different forms (weak and strong definite articles, demonstratives, bare NPs, pronouns) as well as flavors (referential vs attributive, situation-based vs anaphoric, weak, affective, etc.). Important steps towards the understanding of this complexity have been made (Chierchia 1998; Dayal 2004; Schwarz 2009), but many issues remain open (such as the precise division of labor between semantics and pragmatics) and new ones keep arising (such as the problem of the co-existence of definite bare NPs and non-demonstrative definite descriptions within a single language; Bombi 2018; Jiang 2018).

The goal of this workshop is to shed new light on these and related issues. We welcome abstracts dealing with the semantics of definiteness from fresh angles, whether grammatically (less explored construction or phrase types), language-wise (cross-linguistic semantics, less studied languages), or methodologically (quantitative approaches – experimental or corpus-based). The core question the workshop aims to address is Which concepts are needed to capture the meaning of definiteness? There are many relevant subquestions and partial issues, some of which we list below:

  • What are the notions behind different types of definite descriptions (weak vs strong articles, articles vs demonstratives, definite descriptions vs bare NPs)? Can and should the claim that uniqueness is part of expresssions such as weak definites (Aguilar-Guevara 2014; Schwarz 2014) or demonstrative descriptions (Elbourne 2008) be maintained (cf. Šimík 2016)?
  • What semantics do demonstrative descriptions contribute beyond or in contrast to definite descriptions? Notions such as ANTI-UNIQUENESS (Simonenko 2014), CONTRAST (Löbner 1985), AFFECTIVITY (Davis & Potts 2010) have been proposed, but their status and cross-linguistic availability remains to be explored.
  • Bare NPs in articleless languages are widely believed to be able to be semantically definite (Chierchia 1998; Dayal 2004; Geist 2010), but some recent work shows that this stance might need to be reconsidered (Heim 2011; Borik 2018; Šimík & Demian in prep).
  • What is the status of the implications carried by definite descriptions? Concepts such as uniqueness are now widely believed to be PRESUPPOSED, at least among linguists (Elbourne 2013), but recent experimental findings suggest a more pragmatic source of uniqueness or maximality (De Veaugh-Geiss et al. 2018).
  • There are a number of approaches analyzing definite expressions in terms of the “cognitive activation" of their referent in discourse (Gundel et al. 1993, 2001). Can their generalizations also be captured by formal semantic analyses? If so, how are the two types of approaches to be reconciled?


  • Abstract submission deadline: 23 August 2018
  • Notification of acceptance: 15 September 2018
  • Submission of short abstracts (for publication in the conference booklet): 15 October 2018
  • Conference: 6–8 March 2019