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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
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    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
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    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
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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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    DOM in Spanish is confined to marking some direct objects with the preposition a, but it's got to do with animacy. Mass nouns are never animate, and animate generics behave no differently (DOM-wise) from other nouns, AFAIK. – pablodf76 Sep 23 '17 at 17:14
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I read in an article by Roehrs that in Romance articles have a morphosyntactic function, they are there mostly to agree with the noun they are modifying in gender, number and case (in Romanian), whereas in Germanic they also have the semanrtic-pragmatic reasons you mentioned. :)

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    That's why you have French l'eau est un liquid, Italian il mio amico, Portuguese o teu livro, Spanish me lavé el pelo, etc, which are not possible in Germanic. :) – Matheus Sep 23 '17 at 3:11
  • Is German a Germanic language? – fdb Sep 23 '17 at 11:31
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    This post would benefit from referencing the sources more specifically. – bytebuster Sep 23 '17 at 12:15
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I am not sure that all Romance languages use articles in the same way.

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).

For instance, in Portuguese, um chimpanzé gosta de bananas usually has not this generic meaning of "chimps love bananas", and would be used in different contexts. And o chimpanzé gosta de bananas is at least ambiguous, and I think would be used more like as "this chimp loves bananas". Furthermore, chimpanzé gosta de banana (for some reason, now the object needs going in the singular, too) is colloquial, not standard (which would be chimpanzés gostam de banana(s), with the object accepting both singular and plural. And, finally, as you see, banana in any case rejects articles. And so the usage is different from French, albeit both being Romance language.

On further thought, it has to be different: French has three sets of articles, definite, indefinite, and partitive, while Portuguese (as English) has only definite and indefinite articles. Portuguese expresses the French idea of partitive by an "article 0" (though by no means this is the only use of the absence of an article). Colloquially:

Me dá o pão. - Give me (this precise loaf of) bread.

Me dá um pão. - Give me a loaf of bread.

Me dá pão. - Give me (some) bread.

But then pão is used both as a countable noun (in which it means "loaf of bread" and as a non-countable noun (in which it means "bread", the substance of which loaves of bread are made).

Anyway, my feeling is that the use of articles in Portuguese if by far more "syntactical" than "semantic". Some constructions require definite articles, others require indefinite articles, some require no article at all. This is far from consistent, as probably best shown by the usage of country names, where it has absolutely no semantic value:

Venho da França. - I come from France.

Venho do Vietnã. - I come from Vietnam.

Venho de Portugal. - I come from Portugal.

And it is probably unpredictable. For instance, while the opposition definite article/no article implies the opposition between countable/non-countable nouns in some cases, in other cases it marks the opposition between a person itself and the work of that person:

Gosto do José - I like (this guy) Joseph.

Gosto da Bete - I like (this lady) Beth.

Gosto de Mozart - I like Mozart. (the music, not necessarily the man).

Gosto de Jane Austen - I like Jane Austen. (the books, etc.)

Other contradistictions possibly exist, but it is not easy to spot the illogicalities in one's own language.

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