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7.4 Definiteness and indefiniteness

Definite Noun Phrases (NPs) presuppose the existence of the referent of the NP in the discourse context, whereas indefinite NPs do not. So, indefinite NPs are characteristically used to introduce a new discourse referent. Two examples are given below:

Deer was insen ’n Buur, die träi Sune hiede.
there was once a farmer who three sons had
Once upon a time there was a farmer who had three sons.
Deer is 'n Köänich die kon fljoge, wät is dät foar aan? ’n Näddelköänich.
there’s a king who can fly what is it for one? A wren.
There’s a king who can fly. What king is it? A kingfisher.

Here the new referent, a farmer or a king, is introduced in a there-construction. Definite NPs do not normally occur in this construction. Note that in the second example the relative clause shows main clause word order. This is also characteristic of this type of relative clauses following an indefinite in a presentational there-construction in spoken language. See also: Pronouns (6).


Definite quantifiers cannot co-occur with the functional element deer ‘there’, as the latter is characteristically used to introduce new discourse referents. However, deer ‘there’ is also used with other arguments such as the negative quantifier. An example is given below:

Deer is silläärge nit wäl touhuus.
there is ever not who home
There’s never anybody home.’ ‘There’s nobody ever home.

This makes it clear that there’s more to ‘there’ than that it is used for the introduction of new discourse referents, since there are no new discourse referents in the sentence above. Furthermore, possessors, even if they are themselves indefinite, cause the Noun Phrase (NP) in which they are contained to be definite. Hence the presence of a possessor automatically turns the containing NP into a definite NP. In order to express possession of an indefinite, the (semantic) possessor must be expressed inside a PP, and the possessed noun is preceded by the indefinite article. This holds true of Saterland Frisian, and of other Germanic languages. Furthermore, the definite and demonstrative articles prevents an attributive AP from agreeing with the NP, but possessors do not do so, see AP. If the presentational there-construction is a test for indefiniteness, then the following elements count as indefinite: the indefinite article, the negative article and indefinite quantifiers.

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