The Semantics of Determiners

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NP Semantics June sent

The Semantics of Determiners
Donka F. Farkas
Chapter for Grammar of Romanian edited by Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin
June, 2008
1. Introduction1
This chapter is concerned with the main themes of determiner semantics viewed through the lens of Romanian data. We adopt the terminology current since Abney (1987) in calling the maximal syntactic category headed by a nominal a D(eterminer) P(hrase). We use the term ‘nominal’ below as an umbrella term for nominal projections, be they maximal or not. In this section we review the empirical territory and the theoretical perspectives used in mapping it. The next section is devoted to the definite vs. indefinite distinction; section 3 focuses on the large class of indefinite determiners in Romanian.

Since the semantics of determiners is closely connected to the semantics of DPs, we start our discussion in this subsection with a brief look at DP typology. We then narrow our attention to determiners before turning to reviewing the main theoretical perspectives from which the issue of determiner semantics has been approached.

1.1 Types of DPs
Traditionally, the members of the large family of DPs have been subcategorized into the classes in Figure 1:

pronominal non-pronominal

def. indef. Proper Names CN-headed
el ‘he’ cineva ‘somebody’ Maria o femeie ‘a woman’
femeia ‘the woman’
fiecare femeie ‘every woman’
această femeie ‘this woman’
orice femeie ‘any woman’

Figure 1: A traditional classification of DPs

Pronominal DPs carry reduced semantic information, often encoded in the form of semantic features. In more contemporary parlance they are said to lack descriptive content, a fact correlated with the lack of a CN head. They may occur freely on their own, without any determiners or modifiers. The ‘definite’ pronouns are anaphoric, in the sense that their interpretation depends on some other element in their linguistic or non-linguistic environment, while ‘indefinite’ pronouns are not subject to this requirement.2 Since Postal (1966) it has become common to treat pronouns as occurring in the D(eterminer) position, thus explaining the lack of articles with this class of nominals.

P(roper) N(ames) are a nominal class with special syntactic and semantic properties. Common to all PNs across languages is a semantic characteristic: they are connected by particularly strong ties to a particular entity that serves as their semantic value. This property has rendered them of great interest to philosophers of language. From the point of view of morpho-syntax, languages differ with respect to whether PNs occur with or without articles. In Romanian, masculine personal PNs occur without an article, while some feminine proper names and some geographic names occur with the definite article. Thus, there is reason to treat the -a ending in proper names such as Maria or Ana and in the geographic name Dunărea as the definite feminine article.

The last category of DPs in Figure 1 contains those DPs that are headed by a D, bold-faced in Figure 1 (an article, like o ‘Indef.Sg.Fem’, -a ‘Def.Sg.Fem’, or a quantifier).3 The NP sister of this D is headed by a C(ommon) N(oun). This is by far the largest and most heterogeneous class of DPs and it is this class that will form the focus of this chapter. The semantic (and syntactic) properties of these DPs follow to a large extent (though not completely) from their particular determiner, and therefore we will concentrate below on the semantics of determiners.

An excellent reason to treat the expressions in Figure 1 as members of the same category is that they can be conjoined with one another: tu, Maria şi fiecare student din clasa mea ‘you, Mary and every student from my class’. Next, note that common to all the DPs in Figure 1 is the fact that they can occupy the same syntactic positions in clausal structure. To exemplify, in (1) we see them as subjects, objects of a P(reposition) and as D(irect) O(bjects):

(1) a. El/Cineva/ Maria/o femeie a plecat.
he/somebody/Maria/a.Fem woman has left
‘He/somebody/Maria/a woman left.’
b. Paul a vorbit cu el/ Maria/o femeie/ femeia.
Paul has taked with him/Maria/a.Fem woman/woman.Def.Fem
‘Paul talked to him/Maria/a woman/the woman.’
c. Paul a invitat pe cineva/ o femeie.
Paul has invited P someone/a.Fem woman
‘Paul invited someone/a woman.’
d. Paul l-a invitat pe el/ Ion/copilul din vecini.
Paul Cl-has invited P. him/Ion/child.Def from neighbor.Pl
Paul invited him/Ion/the neighbor’s child

The data in (1c) and (1d) show that Romanian is a Differential Object Marking language: a strict subset of DOs is marked by a prepositions (pe). In (1d) we see that Romanian is also a ‘clitic doubling’ language: verbs come accompanied by an unstressed pronoun agreeing with certain verbal arguments in number, person, gender and case. We will touch upon the connections between these morpho-syntactic matters and semantic ones below. (For relevant literature, see Farkas 1978, Tasmowski 1987, Dobrovie-Sorin 1994, Gierling 1997, Cornilescu 2001, 2002.)

On the semantic side, it is harder to see what the common denominator of all DPs in Figure 1 is. A first hypothesis that seems to work for most DPs is a basic ability to refer to entities, understood in a very general sense that includes abstract objects of all sorts. The DPs that are not covered by this generalization are the so-called purely quantificational DPs such as fiecare femeie ‘every woman’, nici o femeie ‘no woman’, orice femeie ‘any woman’. At this stage, the only common characteristic of all the members of the class of DPs is that they may function as syntactic and semantic arguments of the main predicate in the sentence in which they appear. The sentences in (1) assert that a particular event occurred (a leaving or inviting event denoted by the main verb of the sentence), and the DPs in these sentences provide more information about the participants in these events. Whether a DP must be thus connected to a participant or whether it can also serve as a main predicate of the sentence depends on the type of DP involved. Definite pronouns, Proper Names and demonstrative DPs (those whose D is a demonstrative D like acest ‘this’ or acel ‘that’) cannot function as main predicates but indefinite and definite DPs can:

(2) Paul e (un) medic celebru/preşedintele de care vom vorbi.

Paul is a doctor famous/president.Def of whom will.IPl speak
‘Paul is a famous doctor/the president of whom we will speak.’

Here the underlined DP is a predicate nominal, doing the job of the main predicate of the sentence, while the verb e ‘is’ is an auxiliary whose job is to encode information about tense, polarity and other features that nominals cannot encode on their own.

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