WS3: Syntax of articles

Workshop 3: Typology of the syntax of articles


Laura Becker (University of Leipzig)
Jingting Ye (University of Leipzig)


In the functional literature, articles are predominantly addressed with respect to their semantic function and referential contribution to meaning (e.g. Hawkins 1978, Lyons 1999; Dryer 2014). A question that has received considerably less attention (e.g. Himmelmann 1997) in functional comparative and typological linguistics is the general syntactic and morpho-syntactic behaviour of elements that we lump together under the label of “article” or “(in)definite determiner” and it seems we still lack an understanding of the cross-linguistic syntax of articles. Moreover, although formal approaches such as minimalist syntax attribute articles to a universal syntactic position (the head of determiner phrases), those are not based on systematically observed cross-linguistic syntactic properties of articles, especially taking into account articles from Non-European languages. For this reason, we propose a workshop on a functionally-oriented typology of syntactic properties of articles, which will help us to know more about general typological trends, to identify potential correlations or causes for the patterns we observe across languages, and to find appropriate criteria for articles as cross-linguistic category.

In order to investigate the syntactic and morphosyntactic properties of articles from a functional cross-linguistic perspective, the topics of the workshop include:

(i) Articles as cross-linguistic category: Although we might have clear concepts for the syntactic properties of articles especially from European languages, many elements from other languages have functions similar to articles, but are somewhat different syntactically. Do we count in classifiers that function as articles (e.g. in Chinese dialects, cf. Ye forthc.), Rapanui “articles” that are in complementary syntactic distribution with predicate markers, or Tagalog “articles” that could also be analyzed as case markers, to give some examples?. What cross-linguistic (and language-internal) criteria can we apply to consider elements as articles?

(ii) Articles and other elements in the noun phrase: The distribution of articles in the nominal domain is often conditioned by the presence of other elements in the noun phrase, e.g. demonstratives, possessives, and adjectives. As for demonstratives and possessives, one might argue that their co-occurrence is functionally restricted for reasons of economy (c.f. Haspelmath 1999). However, results from Becker (forthc.) show that the co-occurrence of articles and demonstratives is rather conditioned by the nominal syntax: there is a correlation between the relative position of the article and the demonstrative and their co-occurrence: if they occupy the same slot in the noun phrase, they tend to not co-occur, if they do co-occur, they tend to be in different positions with respect to the noun. As for possessives and articles, there seems to be no such syntactic restriction, and co-occurrence with articles is found independently of the relative positions of article and possessive marker. This suggests that syntactically, articles are closer to demonstratives than possessive markers. Is this a robust cross-linguistic pattern? What other kinds of interactions between articles and other elements in the noun phrase do we find in the languages of the world?

(iii) The distribution of articles in certain syntactic positions: As Lyons (1999: 51) noted for a number of European languages, adpositional phrases, and certain case markers can restrict the applicability of articles. Looking at the languages of the world, we find this blocking as a recurring pattern often with locative, instrumental cases and spatial adpositions (e.g. in Gaahmg, Rapanui, Mokpe, Armenian, Basque, Ch’ol). Are those effects of synchronic functional nature, are they due to the diachronic development of articles, or can they be accounted by frequency? Topic and focus phrases are also found to condition the absence (e.g. the indefinite article in the topic position in Malayalam) or presence of certain articles. Are those cross-linguistically robust patterns?

(iv) Article inflection: Articles can agree with the noun in different categories, i.e. they often for number, gender (or noun class), and case. The form and the position of the article or the geographical area do not seem to be correlated to the inflection of articles (Becker forthc.). Rather, the inflectional behaviour of the noun can be correlated to the inflection of the article. There is a clear cross-linguistic trend for the article to show inflection if the noun does not. However, the categories seem to behave differently: number is frequently marked on both noun and article, while gender tends to be marked on the article only, and case is preferably marked on the noun only. Is this an effect of synchronic functional pressure, or result of the diachronic development? What about other the agreement behaviour of other elements in the noun phrase? Can we find an agreement hierarchy for the noun phrase in analogy to the one proposed for the clause (Corbett 2006: 224ff)? Another category articles can inflect for is person (e.g. in Biak). However, the use of 1, 2 person marked articles seems to be restricted to certain constructions. Is this a cross-linguistically recurrent pattern? What other (nominal) categories can articles agree for?

Other questions that can also be relevant to the overall topic of the workshop include the grammaticalization of articles from less common sources and into other syntactic markers (e.g. classifiers, nominal markers, case markers, etc.), language contact and borrowing of syntactic constructions involving the use of articles, or areal properties that influence the behaviour of articles or the availability of articles.

Contributions: We invite contributions that explore syntactic and morphosyntactic properties of articles, such as comparative studies but also work on less documented single languages. We are interested in both synchronic and diachronic approaches, and we are open to different frameworks and linguistic theories, as long as their contribution has general and empirical relevance.


  • Becker, L. (forthc.): Articles across the world’s languages. PhD thesis, Leipzig University.
  • Corbett, G. (2006): Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dryer, M. S. (2014): ‘Competing Methods for Uncovering Linguistic Diversity: The Case of Definite and Indefinite Articles (Commentary on Davis, Gillon, and Matthewson)’, Language 90(4), 232–249.
  • Haspelmath, M. (1999): Explaining article-possessor complementarity: Economic motivation in noun phrase syntax. Language 75(2): 227-43.
  • Hawkins, J. A. (1978): Definiteness and Indefiniteness: A Study in Reference and Grammaticality Prediction. Croom Helm; Humanities Press, London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
  • Himmelmann, N. P. (1997): Deiktikon, Artikel, Nominalphrase: Zur Emergenz Syntaktischer Struktur. Niemeyer, Tübingen.
  • Lyons, C. (1999): Definiteness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.
  • Ye, J. (forthc.) Definite article in Southwest Mandarin Chinese. In Definite Classifier-Noun constructions in Chinese dialects. Zhongxishuju Press.
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