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If the assumptions on PF- vs. lexical saturation are
correct, it may t first glance seem surprising that there are languages in which
definite determiners cooccur with unmodified proper names. German and Portuguese
are such cases:
(Die) Maria hat (den Johannes) angerufen.
the-fem Mary has the-masc John called.
‘John called Mary today’.
A Maria telefonou ao João.
the-fem Mary called to-the-masc John.
‘Mary called John.’
In the literature on German, this usage of the definite
article is often brushed aside as a merely optional or stylistic surface
phenomenon: “a norm without any further communicative basis” (Bisle-Müller
1991: 120). Grimm (1989: 32), however, points out that the definite article
stresses the familiarity of the discourse referent. Consider the following:
a. Ich habe gestern mit der Uschi KARTEN gespielt. *Ich glaube, du kennst sie nicht.
I have yesterday with the Uschi cards played. I
believe you know her not.
‘yesterday, I played cards with Uschi. I believe you don’t know her.’
b. Ich habe gestern mit der USCHI Karten gespielt. Ich glaube, du kennst sie nicht.
c. Ich habe gestern mit Uschi KARTEN gespielt. Ich glaube, du kennst sie nicht.
d. Ich habe gestern mit USCHI Karten gespielt. Ich glaube, du kennst sie nicht.
Even though my own intuition can hardly be taken as hard
evidence for a pragmatic fact, it seems to me that a proper name can only
introduce a discourse referent that is new to the listener if it occurs without
the definite article (30c,d) or if the name is stressed (30b).
Thus, the definite article is optional insofar as it is not required or
prohibited syntactically, but it is not true that there is no difference in
meaning between names with and names without article. The meaning supplied by
the definite article is exactly the same as posited by Heim (1981) for definite
descriptions, i.e. the definite article marks familiarity as usual. To be
precise, it marks familiarity for the listener, i.e. it clearly anchors the name
in a domain of discourse shared by speaker and listener.
In German, familiarity is impolite. Politeness markers in
German reflect a social distance between speaker and discourse referent (or
addressee), i.e. the lack of politeness markers or the existence of overt
familiarity markers will be interpreted as rude, if it seems that an existing
social gap is purposely ignored. The fact that the definite article carries
meaning for those speakers who employ it “optionally” becomes very apparent
in the following context:
Beim gestrigen Gipfeltreffen trafen sich der Kohl und der Jelzin.
At-the yesterday’s summit met REFL.the Kohl and the Jelzin.
‘Kohl and Jelzin met at yesterday’s summit.’
Even speakers who regularly use the definite article with
proper names would cringe if this sentence was uttered by a TV news anchor. The
definite article here would exhibit a lack of polite distance towards heads of
state that would certainly be regarded as inappropriate. Of course, one may
object that this is a matter of style, i.e. that this usage simply does not fit
the diction commonly employed by news anchors. I would maintain, however, that
the news anchor style is the way it is for a reason, i.e. the stylistic choices
of objective reporting are determined by the pragmatic implications of the
definite article in this case.
Notice that such pragmatic implications vary from language
to language. While Spanish allows the definite article with proper names in
informal speech with similar connotations as in German,
the closely related Portuguese uses the definite article in formal standard
language as a politeness marker. This cross-linguistic variance would be hard to
capture for theories that assume a separate categorial status for proper names
and try to derive the surface syntax from underlying features introduced by the
Besides its function as a familiarity marker, the definite
article also carries overt case in German, while proper names do not (bare nouns
are never marked for case in German). This leads one to expect that the definite
article occurs whenever a proper name needs to be overtly marked for case. This
is born out by the facts, as the following examples of scrambling structures
a. Ich habe Peter Maria vorgestellt.
I have Peter Mary introduced-to.
‘I introduced Mary to Peter’.
b. *Ich habe Maria Peter vorgestellt.
‘I introduced Mary to Peter’.
c. Ich habe die Maria Peter vorgestellt.
... the-fem-Acc Mary ...
d. Ich habe Maria dem Peter vorgestellt.
... the-masc-Dat Peter...
e. Ich habe die Maria dem Peter vorgestellt.
...the-fem-Acc Mary the-masc-Dat Peter...
Sentence (31a) shows the default word order. The scrambled
order in (31b) cannot receive the same interpretation, since the nominal
arguments cannot be properly associated with the respective q-role without
appropriate case marking. As soon as at least one of the arguments is overtly
marked for case (31c-e), the sentence is interpretable with the target meaning.
There are at least two ways to interprete these data: the
first would be to say that all sentences in (31) are syntactically well-formed,
i.e. the ungrammaticality of (31b) is entirely due to the pragmatic limitations
to ‘trace’ the scrambled item back to their q-position without overt case.
Alternatively, one could argue that the syntactic derivation of (31b) is again
well-formed, but that a crash at PF occurs when morphological case fails to be
realized on the bare noun adjoined to D. At this point, I cannot make an
Whatever the exact analysis of (31b) turns out to be, it
involves that proper names are wrapped in a DP, while the phonological
representation of the head D is dependent on a variety of other factors. The
assumption of such a wrapper phrases is not new to syntactic theory. Even
languages that completely lack determiners are often assumed to have wrapper
phrases, such as the case projection KP in Japanese (cf. Takano 1996). In my
view, all these wrapper projections are really functionally equivalent.
Languages differ only in the exact features that find overt (i.e. phonological)
expression within this phrase. In English, only definiteness is overtly marked,
in Japanese it is case, and in German, both happen to coincide in one morpheme,
namely the determiner.
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© Philipp Strazny 1998
 I happen to come from a region where this usage of the definite article with names is the (informal) standard (Köln-Düsseldorf-Neuss, Northrhine-Westfalia), so I can also speak with the authority of an informant here (but, while I try to stay on the conservative side in my generalizations, a survey on a larger scale is certainly warranted).
 If, as is often assumed, phonological stress correlates with syntactic focus, and if a focussed element undergoes LF-movement into a focus position, one may argue that the name in (23b) can be interpreted as if it was not in the domain of the definite article, which makes a novelty interpretation become possible. While the exact analysis of focus is not relevant here, I just wanted to point out that (23b) is not necessarily a counterexample to the assumption that the definite article marks familiarity.
 I thank Ana Wells for pointing this fact out to me.