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In grammatical theory, definiteness is a feature of noun phrases, distinguishing between entities that are specific and identifiable in a given context (definite noun phrases) and entities which are not (indefinite noun phrases).
There is considerable variation in the expression of definiteness across languages:
- Some languages, e.g. English, use separate words called articles (e.g. the indefinite article a/an and the definite article the).
- In other languages, the article is a clitic that attaches phonologically to the noun (and often to modifying adjectives), e.g. the Hebrew definite article ha- or the Arabic definite article al-.
- In yet other languages, definiteness is indicated by affixes on the noun or on modifying adjectives, much like the expression of grammatical number and grammatical case. In these languages, the inflections indicating definiteness may be quite complex. In the Germanic languages and Balto-Slavic languages, for example (as still in modern German and Lithuanian), there are two paradigms for adjectives, one used in definite noun phrases and the other used in indefinite noun phrases.
- In some languages, e.g. Hungarian, definiteness is marked on the verb.
- Some languages do not express definiteness at all.
Use in different languages
- Phrasal clitic: as in Basque: Cf. emakume ("woman"), emakume-a (woman-ART: "the woman"), emakume ederr-a (woman beautiful-ART: "the beautiful woman")
- Noun affix: as in Romanian: om ("man"), om-ul (man-ART: "the man"); om-ul bun (man-ART good: "the good man")
- Prefix on both noun and adjective: Arabic الكتاب الكبير (al-kitāb al-kabīr) with two instances of al- (DEF-book-DEF-big, literally, "the book the big")
- Distinct verbal forms: as in Hungarian: olvasok egy könyvet (read-1sg.pres.INDEF a book-ACC.sg: "I read a book") versus olvasom a könyvet (read-1sg.pres.DEF the book-ACC.sg: "I read the book")
Germanic, Romance, Celtic, Semitic, and auxiliary languages generally have a definite article, sometimes used as a postposition. Many other languages do not. Some examples are Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, and modern Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian. When necessary, languages of this kind may indicate definiteness by other means such as Demonstratives.
It is common for definiteness to interact with the marking of case in certain syntactic contexts. In many languages direct objects (DOs) receive distinctive marking only if they are definite. For example in Turkish, the DO in the sentence adamları gördüm (meaning "I saw the men") is marked with the suffix -ı (indicating definiteness). The absence of the suffix means that the DO is indefinite ("I saw men").
In Serbo-Croatian (and in the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian), and to a lesser extent in Slovene, definiteness can be expressed morphologically on prenominal adjectives. The short form of the adjective is interpreted as indefinite, while the long form is definite and/or specific:
- short (indefinite): Serbo-Croatian nov grad "a new city"; Lithuanian balta knyga "a white book"
- long (definite): novi grad "the new city, a certain new city"; baltoji knyga "the white book, a certain white book"
In Japanese, a language which indicates noun functions with postpositions, the topic marker (wa) may include definiteness. For example, 馬は (uma wa) can mean "the horse", while 馬が (uma ga) can mean "a horse".
In some languages, the definiteness of the object affects the transitivity of the verb. In the absence of peculiar specificity marking, it also tends to affect the telicity of mono-occasional predications.
The morphological category corresponding to definiteness in the Semitic languages is known as grammatical state. State is a property of the inflection of nouns, much like number and case, and adjectives must agree in state with their associated noun, just like they agree in number, gender and case. The Semitic languages have three values for grammatical state: indefinite, definite and construct. Indefinite and definite state function much as elsewhere. The construct state is specifically used of a definite noun that is modified by another noun in a genitive construction. Typically, no other element can intervene between construct-state noun and modifying genitival noun, and the two often function as a phonological unit. In Arabic, for example, the feminine ending of nouns in the construct state has a special sandhi form -at-.
- Aljović, Nadira (2002). "Long adjectival inflection and specificity in Serbo-Croatian". Recherches linguistiques de Vincennes 31: 27–42. Retrieved 2007-03-30.
- Hawkins, J.A. (1978) Definiteness and indefiniteness: a study in reference and grammaticality prediction. London:Croom Helm.
- Lyons, Christopher (1999) Definiteness. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-511-03721-4.
- Definite article from Glottopedia