On 10/27/2023 Florian Schwarz gave a colloquium entitled "Exploring the contrast between weak and strong definite articles experimentally” at Northwestern University.
Abstract: Schwarz (2009) proposed a distinction between weak and strong definite articles, reflected in Standard German in the presence or absence of contraction of the article with certain prepositions (e.g., vom vs. von dem). Semantically, the analysis took the former to be a situationally restricted uniqueness article, and the latter an anaphoric article bearing an index, just like a pronoun. In subsequent work, numerous authors, have applied this distinction to analyze contrasts between definite forms in a wide range of languages. While this cross-linguistic evidence supports the availability of the ingredients of the distinction in natural language in general (with some analytical variations and adjustments, and quite possibly further aspects in play in certain languages), the basic semantic contrast remains subtle and has generally not been captured systematically in experimental investigations. I present data from a simple picture selection task paradigm where the contrast in anaphoricity is pitched against another factor, that of typicality, which do provide quantitative support of the posited contrast. Next, I turn to a question vexingly left open in this literature, namely whether articles in languages that do not seem to make such a contrast and only use one form for definites throughout, like English, are ambiguous or map onto either weak or strong articles. Extending the experimental paradigm to English seems to provide an answer to this question. However, the relevant cross-linguistic comparisons, and assumptions feeding into them, are not as straightforward on second look. I close by considering data from some further extensions of the overall approach, as well as an outlook on possible future directions to further narrow down the interpretation of the empirical picture and to explore a wider range of relevant languages by extending the experimental paradigm.