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In the Germanic languages, a generic construction using the definite article with mass nouns is unacceptable. In contrast, Romance languages require the definite article to make the generic construction grammatical.

a.) The water is a liquid. (Unacceptable)

b.) The tiger is an animal. (acceptable)

c.) L'eau est un liquide. (acceptable)

The reason it is not acceptable in Germanic languages is that the definite article in Germanic languages requires the noun to have individuality. The noun must have a separate existence (boundedness) in order to make a definite generic sentence with it. Take the sentence above for example, "the tiger is an animal." refers to the ideal tiger that has every feature to be "tiger-ish", which we could call the "representative of all tigers". The fact that tiger is a countable noun contributes to the generic construction. There is no such thing as the "representative of water" to refer to, as water is homogeneous.

Now, what I would like to know is, what is different about the definite article in Romance languages compared to that of Germanic languages from a cognitive point of view? What is it that allows (or rather it is necessary to have) the definite article to make a definite generic sentence with mass nouns in Romance languages?

Does the definite article in Romance languages not require individuality/boundedness? Or maybe Romance language speakers see mass nouns like water as separated substances?

When making a definite generic sentence, what does it refer to? In Germanic languages, it refers to the "representative individual" of the noun. When saying "L'eau est un liquide.", what water does the sentence refer to?

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It seems to me that you have already at least half-way answered your question with your (possibly correct, but unsupported) assertion about the definite article in Germanic languages. – Colin Fine Dec 29 '12 at 11:30
Well, I would like opinions especially from native Romance language speakers with knowledge on linguistics. Maybe I should have clarified that in the question. What role does the definite article have in the cognitive process for the generic construction in Romance languages? I asked this question in order to find clues for that. – Sindry Dec 29 '12 at 16:37
I think it's not entirely clear that water and other mass nouns are actually Generic in any determinate sense, so the presupposition of the question may be wrong. – jlawler Dec 29 '12 at 19:50
@jlawler You mean mass nouns in Romance languages may not be generic to begin with like they are in Germanic languages? – Sindry Dec 30 '12 at 1:03
It depends on what you mean by 'generic'. What syntactic tests should one use to distinguish "non-generic mass nouns" from "generic mass nouns"? – jlawler Dec 30 '12 at 1:10

As a native speaker of French, my feeling is that your premise that the phenomenon is primarily of cognitive origin is most likely false. It is not the case, I think, that I conceptualize water differently when thinking/speaking in French or in English, it is rather that the same cognitive process are not syntactically encoded in the same ways in these two languages. Common nouns in French syntactically require an article, no matter what, so speakers have to resort to some choices when none is especially obvious from a cognitive or referential point of view.

For pure predicative assertions as L'eau est liquide, Le tigre est un animal no choice is possible as far as I can tell: the definite article has to be used. But as soon as one leaves this simple context, my intuition is not so good. For instance Un chimpanzé adore les bananes (A chimp loves bananas) and Le chimpanzé adore les bananes (The chimp loves bananas) both seem equally degraded with respect to the perfect Les chipanzés adorent les bananes but nevertheless acceptable to my ear (with the meaning Chimps love bananas). Even predication relations which are somewhat qualified open choices: L'eau est liquide but both L'eau à 0 degré est solide and Une eau à 0 degré est solide (with a subtle difference in meanings that is not so easy to describe).

Note finally that some Romance language, e.g Spanish, have an extra syntactic mark that can be adduced to an indefinite noun (this is sometimes called differential object marking) with subtle impacts on definiteness, specificity and the syntactic properties of the object.

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