Specificity (linguistics)

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In linguistics, specificity is a semantic feature of noun phrases, distinguishing between entities/nouns/referents that are unique in a given context and those which are not, even if the unique referent isn't identifiable.

This is distinct from the feature of definiteness.

  • I'm looking for the manager, Ms Lee. [definite, specific]
  • I'm looking for the manager, whoever that may be. [definite, non-specific]
  • There's a certain word that I can never remember. [indefinite, specific]
  • Think of a word, any word. [indefinite, non-specific]

In English and many other languages, specificity is not typically marked. As a result, sometimes, specificity can be ambiguous. Consider the following example:

  • Every woman talked to a student.

This has two interpretations. Under one reading, every woman talked to the same student (the class president, for example), and here the noun phrase a student is specific. Under the second reading, various students were talked to. In this case, a student is non-specific.[1]

"In contrast, in some languages, NPs in certain positions are always unambiguous with respect to specificity. The ambiguity is resolved through case marking: NPs with overt case morphology are specific, NPs without case morphology are nonspecific."[2]

References

  1. Enç, Mürvet (1991). "The semantics of specificity". Linguistic Inquiry. 22 (1): 1–25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Enç, Mürvet (1991). "The semantics of specificity". Linguistic Inquiry. 22 (1): 1–25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>