Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter (A) June 5, 2018

Definiteness agreement and the pragmatics of reference in the Maltese NP

  • Albert Gatt EMAIL logo


Maltese noun phrases exhibit ‘definiteness agreement’ between head noun and modifier. However, the status of this phenomenon as a case of true morphosyntactic agreement has been disputed, given its apparent optionality. The present paper presents a corpus-based study of the distribution of adjectives with and without definite marking, and then tests the pragmatic licensing claim through a production study. Speakers were found to be more likely to use definite adjectives in referential noun phrases when the adjectives had a specifically contrastive function. This result is discussed in the context of both theoretical and psycholinguistic work on the pragmatics of referentiality.


Thanks to Manfred Krug and Christopher Lucas for discussion and insights at the Bamberg workshop and after. Comments by Christopher Lucas and Ray Fabri on earlier drafts contributed towards fleshing out many of the ideas presented here. The author gratefully acknowledges the constructive comments of an anonymous reviewer.







feminine singular


masculine singular




noun phrase




Abbott, Barbara. 2010. Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Barr, Dale J., Roger Levy, Christoph Scheepers & Harry J. Tily. 2013. Random effects structure for confirmatory hypothesis testing: Keep it maximal. Journal of Memory and Language 68. 255–278.10.1016/j.jml.2012.11.001Search in Google Scholar

Bates, Douglas, Martin Maechler & Ben Bolke. 2014. lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using S4 classes. R package version. in Google Scholar

Belke, Eva. 2006. Visual determinants of preferred adjective order. Visual Cognition 14. 261–294.10.1080/13506280500260484Search in Google Scholar

Belke, Eva & Antje S. Meyer. 2002. Tracking the time course of multidimensional stimulus discrimination: Analyses of viewing patterns and processing times during “same”-“different” decisions. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 14. 237–266.10.1080/09541440143000050Search in Google Scholar

Berman, Ruth. 2005. Modern Hebrew. In Robert Hetzron (ed.), The Semitic languages, 312–333. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Borg, Albert & Marie Azzopardi-Alexander. 1997. Maltese. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Brincat, Joseph. 2011. Maltese and other languages: A linguistic history of Malta. Malta: Midsea Books.Search in Google Scholar

Brown-Schmidt, Sarah & Michael K. Tanenhaus. 2006. Watching the eyes when talking about size: An investigation of message formulation and utterance planning. Journal of Memory and Language 54. 592–609.10.1016/j.jml.2005.12.008Search in Google Scholar

Chierchia, Gennaro. 1995. Dynamics of meaning: Anaphora, presupposition and the theory of grammar. Chicago, Ill: Chicago University Press.10.7208/chicago/9780226104515.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Clark, Herbert H. 1996. Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511620539Search in Google Scholar

Cooper, Robin. 1986. Swedish and the head feature convention. In Lars Hellan & Kirsti Koch Christensen (eds.), Topics in Scandinavian syntax, 31–52. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer.10.1007/978-94-009-4572-2_2Search in Google Scholar

Dahl, Östen. 2004. Definite articles in Scandinavian: Competing grammaticalization processes in standard and non-standard varieties. In Bernd Kortmann (ed.), Dialectology meets typology: Dialect grammar from a cross-linguistic perspective, 147–180. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.Search in Google Scholar

Davies, Catherine & Napoleon Katsos. 2013. Are speakers and listeners ‘only moderately Gricean’? An empirical response to Engelhardt et al. (2006). Journal of Pragmatics 49. 78–106.10.1016/j.pragma.2013.01.004Search in Google Scholar

Eikmeyer, Hans-Jürgen & Elizabeth Ahlsèn. 1998. The cognitive process of referring to an object: A comparative study of German and Swedish. In Timo Haukioja (ed.), Papers from the 16th Scandinavian Conference on Linguistics, 153–165. Turku: University of Turku.Search in Google Scholar

Engelhardt, Paul E., Karl Bailey & Fernanda Ferreira. 2006. Do speakers and listeners observe the Gricean Maxim of Quantity? Journal of Memory and Language 54. 554–573.10.1016/j.jml.2005.12.009Search in Google Scholar

Engelhardt, Paul E., S. Barış Demiral & Fernanda Ferreira. 2011. Over-specified referring expressions impair comprehension: An ERP study. Brain and Cognition 77. 304–314.10.1016/j.bandc.2011.07.004Search in Google Scholar

Fabri, Ray. 2001. Definiteness marking and the structure of the NP in Maltese. Verbum 23. 153–172.Search in Google Scholar

Gatt, Albert & Slavomír Čéplö. 2013. Digital corpora and other electronic resources for Maltese. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Corpus Linguistics. Lancaster, UK: University of Lancaster.Search in Google Scholar

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and semantics 3: Speech acts, 41–58. Amsterdam: Elsevier.10.1163/9789004368811_003Search in Google Scholar

Heim, Irene. 1982. The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. PhD dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.Search in Google Scholar

Jordan, Pamela W. 2002. Contextual influences on attribute selection for repeated descriptions. In Kees van Deemter & Rodger Kibble (eds.), Information sharing: Reference and presupposition in language generation and interpretation, 295–328. Stanford, CA: CSLI.Search in Google Scholar

Kaplan, Tamar. 1993. Arabic genitives: A problematic structure for the binding theory. In Mushira Eid & Clive Holes (eds.), Perspectives on Arabic linguistics V: Papers from the Fifth Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics, 195–208. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.10.1075/cilt.101.13kapSearch in Google Scholar

Kaye, Alan S. & Judith Rosenhouse. 2005. Arabic dialects and Maltese. In Robert Hetzron (ed.), The Semitic languages, 263–311. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Koolen, Ruud, Albert Gatt, Martijn Goudbeek & Emiel Krahmer. 2011. Factors causing overspecification in definite descriptions. Journal of Pragmatics 43. 3231–3250.10.1016/j.pragma.2011.06.008Search in Google Scholar

Kuznetsova, Alexandra, Per Bruun Brockhoff & Rune Haubo Bojesen Christensen. 2014. lmerTest: Tests for random and fixed effects for linear mixed effect models. in Google Scholar

Löbner, Sebastian. 1985. Definites. Journal of Semantics 4. 279–326.10.1093/jos/4.4.279Search in Google Scholar

Mifsud, Manwel. 1995. Loan verbs in Maltese: A descriptive and comparative study. Leiden: Brill.10.1163/9789004348387Search in Google Scholar

Naor-Raz, Galit, Michael J. Tarr & Daniel Kersten. 2003. Is color an intrinsic property of object representation? Perception 32. 667–680.10.1068/p5050Search in Google Scholar

Olson, David R. 1970. Language and thought: Aspects of a cognitive theory of semantics. Psychological Review 77. 257–273.10.1037/h0029436Search in Google Scholar

Partee, Barbara H. & Vladimir Borschev. 1999. Possessives, ‘favourite’ and coercion. In Anastasia Riehl & Rebecca Daly (eds.), Proceedings of ESCOL99, 173–190. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Search in Google Scholar

Pechmann, Thomas. 1989. Incremental speech production and referential overspecification. Linguistics 27. 89–110.10.1515/ling.1989.27.1.89Search in Google Scholar

Plank, Frans & Edith Moravcsik. 1996. The Maltese article: Language-particulars and universals. Rivista di Linguistica 8. 183–212.Search in Google Scholar

Rossion, Bruno & Gilles Pourtois. 2004. Revisiting Snodgrass and Vanderwart’s object pictorial set: The role of surface detail in basic-level object recognition. Perception 33. 217–236.10.1068/p5117Search in Google Scholar

Rubio-Fernandez, Paula. 2016. How redundant are redundant color adjectives? An efficiency-based analysis of color overspecification. Frontiers in Psychology 7. 153.10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00153Search in Google Scholar

Russell, Bertrand. 1905. On denoting. Mind 14. 379–493.10.4324/9780203822586-6Search in Google Scholar

Schabert, Peter. 1976. Laut- und Formenlehre des Maltesischen anhand zweier Mundarten. Erlangen: Palm & Enke.Search in Google Scholar

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139173438Search in Google Scholar

Sedivy, Julie C. 2003. Pragmatic versus form-based accounts of referential contrast: Evidence for effects of informativity expectations. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 32. 3–23.10.1023/A:1021928914454Search in Google Scholar

Sedivy, Julie C., Michael K. Tanenhaus, Craig G. Chambers & Gregory N. Carlson. 1999. Achieving incremental semantic interpretation through contextual representation. Cognition 71. 109–147.10.1016/S0010-0277(99)00025-6Search in Google Scholar

Snodgrass, Joan G. & Mary Vanderwart. 1980. A standardized set of 260 pictures: Norms for name agreement, image agreement, familiarity and visual complexity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 6. 174–215.10.1037/0278-7393.6.2.174Search in Google Scholar

Stefanowitsch, Anatol & Stefan Th. Gries. 2005. Covarying collexemes. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1. 1–43.10.1515/cllt.2005.1.1.1Search in Google Scholar

Stefanowitsch, Anatol & Stefan Th. Gries 2003. Collostructions: Investigating the interaction of words and constructions. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8. 209–243.10.1075/ijcl.8.2.03steSearch in Google Scholar

Strawson, Peter F. 1950. On referring. Mind 59. 320–344.10.1093/mind/LIX.235.320Search in Google Scholar

Sutcliffe, Edmund F. 1936. A grammar of the Maltese language. Valletta, Malta: Progress Press.Search in Google Scholar

Tanenhaus, Michael K., Michael J. Spivey-Knowlton, Kathleen M. Eberhard & Julie C. Sedivy. 1995. Integration of visual and linguistic information in spoken language comprehension. Science 268. 1632–1634.10.1126/science.7777863Search in Google Scholar

Tarenskeen, Sammie, Mirjam Broersma & Bart Geurts. 2015. Overspecification of color, pattern, and size: Salience, absoluteness, and consistency. Frontiers in Psychology 6. 1703.10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01703Search in Google Scholar

Wurm, Lee H., Gordon E. Legge, Lisa M. Isenberg & Andrew Luebker. 1993. Color improves object recognition in normal and low vision. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance 19. 899–911.10.1037/0096-1523.19.4.899Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2018-6-5
Published in Print: 2018-6-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 5.6.2023 from
Scroll to top button