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Les superlatifs et la définitude en albanais

Superlatives and Definiteness in Albanian
Bujar Rushiti et Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin
p. 125-140


Les superlatifs albanais ressemblent à ceux des langues romanes en ce qu’ils n’ont pas de marquage morphologique spécifique, le sens superlatif étant exprimé par le comparatif associé au défini. Cette structure de surface est compatible avec des représentations syntaxiques abstraites différentes : le défini peut être sous D° ou bien former un constituant avec le comparatif. Cet article se propose de fournir des arguments qui permettent de décider auquel de ces trois types structuraux se rattache l’albanais.

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The authors are grateful to LABEX-PLU (10-LABX-0083) for funding the research reported in this paper. We also thank Patricia Cabredo-Hofherr, Karen de Clercq, Ion Giurgea and Lucia Tovena for discussion and comments on various parts of this paper.


1Since Szabolcsi (1986), it has been known that adjectival superlatives are ambiguousbetween an absolute superlative reading and a relative superlative reading:

1) Mary read the longest book.
   a. Mary read the longest book out of all the books (in the library).
   b. Mary read a book that is longer than all the books read by other

  • 1 We follow Abney (1987) and subsequent literature in assuming that an expression such as the book (...)

2According to the absolute superlative reading in (1a), we compare elements of a (contextually restricted) set of books. A DP1 that embeds an absolute superlative refers to the member of this set which is at the top of the scale introduced by the adjective, in this case the scale of length. According to the relative superlative reading in (1b), on the other hand, the comparison crucially involves not only books but also another element in the sentence (called the “correlate”), in this case Mary: the length of the book read by Mary is compared to the lengths of the books read by other people.

3Let us stress that the meaning of an absolute superlative is computed DP internally, without taking into account the rest of the sentence. The meaning of the sentence in (1) is obtained by compositionally combining the meaning of the absolute superlative DP with the rest of the clause, which results in conveying that Mary read the entity denoted by the superlative DP, i.e., the book that is the longest out of a contextually restricted set of books, e.g., the books of a given library mentioned or implicit in the context. Relative superlative readings, on the other hand, need to take into account the correlate, which is outside the superlative DP.

4The main goal of this paper is to assign a syntactic representation to Albanian superlative DPs by choosing between two structural representations that are known tocorrespond to the superficially identical forms found across Romance language. The main issue will be to decide on whether the definite article sits in the D° position (as in Italian or Spanish, see Loccioni (2018) or instead is part of a superlative DegP constituent (as in Romanian, see Cornilescu and Giurgea (2013), as well as in some of the Frenchsuperlative DPs, see Dobrovie-Sorin (this volume).

1. Superlative Adjectives in Albanian

5The English sentence in (1) can be uttered in Albanian as in (2) or as in (3), which differ from each other by the position (post- or pre-nominal) of the adjective:

2) Tomorr-i       lexoi               libr-in               më     të      trashë.
    Tomorr.DEF read.PST.3SG book.DEF.ACC CMP AGR thick
Tomorr read the longest book. (relative and absolute).

3) Tomorr-i lexoi                     më të trash-in libër.
    Tomorr.DEF read.PST.3SG CMP AGR thick.DEF.ACC book.BN
Tomorr read the longest book. (absolute only)

Correlated with the difference in position of the adjective, these examples differ inmeaning: example (2) is ambiguous just like its English counterpart in (1), whereasexample (3) can only have the absolute superlative reading: the comparison can onlyinvolve elements of a given set of books.

  • 2 As explained in point 2. below, the definite article on the adjective (in pre-nominal position) o (...)

6Moreover, the examples in (2) and (3) show that (on a par with Romance languagesand unlike Germanic languages) Albanian lacks a dedicated superlative morphology, andinstead expresses superlative meanings by using the comparative form of adjectivesembedded inside a definite DP. In (2) the Albanian DP librin më të trashë “book-the CMP AGR long” does not have any morpheme comparable to the -est in the English the longest book. Librin “book-the” is a noun followed by the definite suffix -in followed by a comparative adjective më të trashë CMP AGR thick”. M‘ is the comparative morpheme,which yields a comparative or superlative reading depending on whether the adjective is unmarked or marked with a definite article2 (cf. më të gjatëcmp agr long-indef” vs më të gjatincmp agr long-the”). is an adjectival agreement marker which agrees in case (accusative / ablative) and (in) definiteness with the head noun in both pre-and post-nominal position. The form of the agreement marker depends on (in)definiteness of the modified noun, e with adjectives modifying singular definite nouns and with adjectives modifying singular indefinite nouns: libr-in e gjatë “book-the agr long” vs një libër të gjatë “a book agr long”.

  • 3 For a more thorough discussion concerning the syntactic distribution of adjectival agreement mark (...)

7The distribution of adjectival agreement markers in Albanian depends on the type ofadjective. Thus, they occur with modifying adjectives but not with classifying adjectives: një libër të gjatë “a book agr long-indef” (meaning “a long book”) vs një shkollë elementare “a school elementary” (meaning “an elementary school”)3.

8Going back to examples (2) and (3), they reveal two similarities with languages like Italian. The following examples are taken from Coppock & Strand (2019: 390, ex. (58a) and (58b)).

4) La mamma fa        i      biscotti (*i)       più   buoni del       mondo.
    DEF mom  makes DEF biscuits (*DEF) CMP tasty  of.DEF world
My mom makes the yummiest cookies in the world.

5) La    mamma fa       i       più   buoni biscotti del       mondo.
    DEF mom    makes DEF CMP tasty  biscuits of.DEF world
My mom makes the yummiest cookies in the world.

Example (4) shows that in Italian, the definite article is banned with post-nominal superlatives just as in Albanian. Example (5), on the other hand, is similar to (3) regarding the semantic interpretation: only an absolute superlative reading is conveyed when the superlative adjective is pre-nominal. Examples (2) and (4) provide an interesting contrast with languages like French, where the definite article appears twice, both in the determiner position of the DP (see the le that precedes livre) and in front of the post-nominal superlative adjective (see the le that precedes plus long):

6) Jean a   lu     le       livre  le     plus long.
    John has read DEF   book DEF more long
John read the longest book.

The Albanian counterpart of this example, given in (7) below, is acceptable only with a comma intonation separating the DP librin “the book” from the post-nominal adjective më të gjatin “the longest”, and serves as an answer to questions of the type What happened with Ben?, rather than Who read the longest book?

7) Ben-I       ka  lexuar  libr-in,               më të         gjat-in.
    Ben.DEF has read     book.DEF.ACC, CMP AGR long.DEF.ACC
    Ben read the book, the longest one.

A good paraphrase of such an example would be “Ben read the book, the longest one”, which suggests that the post-nominal definite adjective më të gjatincmp agr long-the” is an elliptical DP, interpreted as “the longest one”. It recovers as its antecedent the referent denoted by the DP librin “book-the”. Note that an elliptical superlative can show up with indefinite noun phrases as in (8):

8) Lexova   një libër, më    të      gjatin              që   kisha     në raft.
read.1SG a  book  CMP AGR long.DEF.ACC that had.1SG in bookshelf
    I read a book, the longest one that I had in my bookshelf.

Quite clearly, the superlative cannot be taken to form a constituent with a noun introduced by an indefinite determiner. The type of examples in (8) thus constitutes evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the definite-marked superlative in (7) is an elliptical superlative DP rather than a post-nominal modifier of the definite-marked noun.

9Let us now go back to examples (2) and (3), repeated in (9) below:

9) a. librin më të trashë (“book-the cmp agr thick”)
më të trashin libër (“cmp agr thick-the book”)

  • 4 For a generalized use of distinct functional heads for each distinct class of adjectives, see Cin (...)

10These DPs can be assumed to rely on the syntactic configurations (10a) and (10b). Thedetails of the syntactic derivation are not directly relevant for the questions raised in thispaper. For concreteness, we assume that pre-nominal superlatives sit in the Spec of a designated functional head F4, where as post-nominal comparatives with superlativemeanings are some kind of reduced relative clause (see Alexiadou (2014), Loccioni(2018)), which for the sake of simplicity we assume sits in an NP-adjunction position.

10) a. Figure 1: N-to-D Raising of the NP hbër "book"

     b. Figure 2: Raising of CompP to Spec DP

For both (9a) and (9b), represented as in (10a) and (10b), we follow an insight fromDobrovie-Sorin and Giurgea (2006), who argue that adnominal superlatives in languageslike Albanian (also Italian) are formed with a comparative adjective embedded inside adefinite DP. Thus, in both (10a) and (10b), the definite suffix -in is merged in D° and attaches to the right of either the NP or the comparative form depending on which oneraises to Spec DP.

11Summarizing, we have argued that in Albanian, superlative meanings of adnominal adjectives are conveyed by using a comparative embedded inside a DP headed by adefinite determiner. This type of configuration (which is essentially the same as that found in Italian) needs to be carefully distinguished from another type of configuration, illustrated above by the French example in (6). As argued by Loccioni (2018) (followingthe references quoted therein), the lower occurrence of the definite article forms aconstituent (labelled SupP) with the comparative, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Representation of the superlative DP in (6)

In sum, Albanian patterns with Italian and contrasts with French in that it lacks adedicated SupP constituent headed by Sup/DEF of the type shown in Figure 3.

2. When Superlatives Modify the Verb

  • 5 The only context in which Italian comparative adjectives can be interpreted as superlative is ins (...)

12Albanian diverges from Italian regarding adverbial superlatives. The Italian example in(11), taken from Loccioni (2018: 184 -ex:(39a)), shows that comparatives with superlative meaning are disallowed,5 regardless of the presence or absence of the definite article:

11) Maria scrive  (*il)     meglio.
      Mary  writes (*DEF) better
Mary writes the best.

In Albanian, on the other hand, the superlative meaning is conveyed by using a DEFsuffix attached to the comparative form of the adverb:

12) Mari-a       shkruan më     së   shpejt-i.
      Mary.DEF writes     CMP SË  fast.DEF
Mary writes the fastest.

Superficially at least, superlatives of this form resemble French superlative adverbs(modulo suffixation, which pertains to PF):

13) Marie écrit   le      plus  vite.
      Mary  writes DEF CMP fast
Mary writes the fastest.

Granting that no DP structure can be assumed inside adverbs, there is no D° in which thedefinite article could be generated. Under this assumption, DEF must be assumed tobelong to the same constituent as the adverb in the comparative degree, yielding asuperlative reading:

Figure 4: Representation of the superlative adverb in (13)

13The structure shown in Figure 4 is not surprising for French, because in this language SupP constituents also exist for postnominal superlative adjectives (see example (6) represented in Figure 3). For Albanian, however, a SupP of the form in Figure 4 would be strictly dependent on the grammatical category: ADVs would require it, whereas ADJs would block it. Although not impossible, this analysis seems suspicious.

14In what follows we will propose an alternative that seems more natural to us and whichmoreover has the advantage of explaining the presence of the së-marker, which we haveso far not commented upon. The core idea will be that in Albanian, what we have so farcalled “superlative adverbs” are in fact comparatives embedded inside a definite DPheaded by a null abstract N with the meaning MANNER (notated [NmannerØ]):

Figure 5: Representation of V-modifying superlatives

This configuration is identical to the one proposed in Figure (2) for prenominalsuperlative adjectives, modulo two differences: the presence of a null [NmannerØ] instead of the overt N libër “book” and the presence of (which in Albanian grammars isdescribed as the Ablative form of the AGR morpheme) instead of (which is the Accusative form of AGR). Under our proposal, the Ablative marking of is triggered by agreement with [NmannerØ]. Compare the Accusative marking of , which appears when the embedding DP is assigned Accusative Case.

  • 6 appears with some V-modifiers in the positive forms: së bashku “together”, së afërmi “near”, s (...)

15Interestingly, V-modifiers in the positive and comparative degree normally lack :6

14) Mari-a       shkruan  më     (*të)  shpejt-i.
      Mary.DEF writes      CMP (*të)  fast.DEF
Mary writes the fastest.

16Table (1) summarizes the forms of V-modifiers in Albanian:

Table 1: V-modifiers





më Root

më së Root-DEF


më shpejt

më së shpejt-i

This table shows that the common property of all of the three degree forms of Albanian V-modifiers is the absence of , which is expected, since can only appear on adnominal modifiers. The comparative is formed with , on a par with adnominal comparatives. Finally, the superlative differs from the comparative by the correlated presence of and the definite suffix. Both of these two markers are explained if we assume, as proposedabove, that V-modifying superlatives are Ablative-marked definite DPs built with a [NmannerØ]. Positive and comparative V-modifiers, on the other hand, are “bare” V­modifiers, in the sense that they lack DP-structure (which may however appear with certain V-modifiers, see footnote 2).

17In sum, Albanian V-modifying superlatives can be analyzed as comparatives embedded inside a definite DP built with a [NmannerØ], the DP itself being marked withAblative Case. No dedicated SupP of the type found in French (and Romanian, notillustrated here) and illustrated in (13)/Figure 4, needs to be assumed. Insofar as it lacksSupP, Albanian resembles Italian. The difference is that Italian does not have V­modifying DPs made up of comparatives that modify a null [NmannerØ].

3. Quantity Superlatives in Albanian

18In this section we will examine the quantity superlatives shumë “many/much” and pak “(a)few/(a)little”, which are noteworthy insofar as their prenominal forms have the sameshape as their V-modifying (say “adverbial”) forms, whereas their postnominal forms areunremarkable, in the sense that they resemble postnominal quality superlatives. We willtherefore first examine in turn postnominal and V-modifying positions, which confirmthe analyses of quality superlatives proposed in Sections 1 and 2 above. We will then turnto prenominal positions, in which quantity superlatives differ from quality superlativesand instead have the forms characteristic of V-modifiers.

3.1. Quantity Superlatives in Postnominal Positions

19Let us consider the example below, in which the më të shumtë “CMP AGR many” occurs in the postnominal position of a definite DP:

15) Tomorri        kishte lexuar libra-t                më    të       shumtë/paktë.
      Tomorr.DEF had    read    books.DEF.ACC CMP AGR many/little
      Tomorr had read the most/fewest books.

This example shows that the superlative reading of shumë “many/much” and pak “(a)few/(a)little” is expressed on the same model as postnominal quality superlatives: thesuperlative constituent më të shumtë/paktë carries no definite article, and neverthelessexpresses a superlative reading due to the fact that it is embedded inside a DP headed by a definite article that gets suffixed to the head N librat “books.DEF.ACC”.

  • 7 As is well-known, quantity superlatives do not have absolute readings (see Gawron 1995). Note als (...)

20The example in (15) has a relative superlative reading7, which says that the set ofbooks Tomorr read contains more books than any other set of books that other relevantindividuals may have read.

3.2. V-modifying Quantity Superlatives

21Let us now turn to quantity superlatives in V-modifying positions:

16) a. Ben-i       punon   më    së  shumt-i.
         Ben.DEF works   CMP SË  much.DEF
Ben works the most.
Drit-a         foli    më     së   pak-u.
          Drita.DEF  spoke  CMP SË  little.DEF
Drita spoke the least.

In (16a) më së shumti “CMP së much-the” indicates that the amount of work Ben does is higher than that of other relevant individuals in the discourse context. (16b) indicates thatamong a relevant set of participants, Drita is the one who spoke the least frequently orless than anybody else. So (16b) conveys a relative superlative reading on the scale offrequency or of duration.

22The examples in (16a-b) show that when they function as V-modifiers, quantitysuperlatives are formed on the same model as V-modifying quality superlatives: theAblative form is used instead of and the definite suffix is generated in the D¡ positionof a DP built with a null abstract N, which for quantity superlatives can be assumed to be [NquantityØ] (compare [NmannerØ], which we have assumed for quality adjectives in V­modifying positions).

23Table 2 shows the three degree forms of quantity superlatives in V-modifying positions:

Table 2: Quantity superlatives in V-modifying positions

Table 2: Quantity superlatives in V-modifying positions





më shumë

më së shumt-i.DEF


më pak

më së pak-u.DEF

These forms are perfectly parallel to the forms of quality superlatives in V-modifyingpositions (see Table 2). Note indeed that (i) t‘ is absent in all of the three forms (expected, since t‘ is exclusively introduced on adnominal modifiers), (ii) s‘ and the definite suffix are introduced only on the superlative form. The two correlated markings by which the superlative differs from the positive and comparative forms follows naturally from our hypothesis that V-modifying superlatives are embedded inside Ablative marked definiteDPs built with a null abstract [NquantityØ].

3.3. Prenominal Quantity Superlatives

24The examples below show that in prenominal positions, quantity superlatives do not takethe form they have in the postnominal position, but rather the form they have when theyfunction as V-modifiers (i.e., -marking instead of -marking and presence of the definite suffix), see examples (16)a-b and Table 3:

17) Unë luaj  më    së  shumt-i       instrumente.
      I     play CMP SË  many.DEF  instruments
I play the most instruments.

18) Ben-i        ka   më     së   shumt-i       miq.
      Ben.DEF  has CMP SË  many.DEF  friends
Ben has the most friends.

  • 8 Example (17) can also take a frequency interpretation. The sentence says that the speaker playsin (...)

In (17), më së shumti “CMP së many.DEF” refers to a cardinality of instruments higher than any other cardinalities of instruments that relevant individuals may play. Thus, of all individuals considered, the speaker plays more instruments than anybody else.8 Similarly, (18) says that Ben has more friends than any other relevant individual in thediscourse context.

25This interpretation is more or less identical to the one of (15). It would be interesting to explain how a similar meaning arises from two different syntactic configurations, butthis issue will be left for another occasion. Here, we will concentrate on the difference inform (“bare” comparative form in (15) vs comparative form carrying the definite suffixand preceded by the Ablative-marker ).

26The difference in form can be explained if we assume the analysis shown in Figure 6:

Figure 6: Representation of the superlative DP in (17)

The crucial point is that prenominal quantity superlatives do not sit in the same position as prenominal quality superlatives: the latter occupy a nominal modifier position (intechnical terms, the Spec position of some F head, if we follow Cinque 2010), whereasthe former occupy the Spec position of Meas¡, in which Measure Phrases (e.g., 200 g (of butter)), as well as quantitatives (MANY/MUCH and their degree forms) are assumed to occur (Schwarzschild 2006, Solt 2015). Moreover, what sits in Spec,Meas is not justCompP (as is the case for prenominal quality superlatives) but rather a full DP headed by a null N[QuantØ], hence the label DPQuant, used for readability. Figure 7 shows that the internal structure of DPQuant is identical to that of the adverbial superlatives analyzed as DPQuant. The two configurations differ only by the content of the null N (Quant vs Manner):

Figure 7: Representation of the quantity superlatives sitting in Spec,Meas

The presence of instead of is due to the fact that the AGR relation is established between shumt and [QuantØ] rather than between shumt and the head N instrumente (which would trigger ). The definite article does not originate in the D¡ that takes theoverall NP as a complement, but rather in the lower D¡, the one that takes the NP headed by [QuantityØ] as a complement. The upper D° is arguably filled with an indefinite-like null D° (see Dobrovie-Sorin, this volume), as indicated in Figure 6.


27We have shown that Albanian is similar to Italian (and Spanish) and differs from French (and Romanian) in that it lacks a dedicated SupP constituent. Superlatives meanings areconveyed by embedding a comparative inside a definite DP.

28This generalization is apparently disconfirmed by Albanian adverbial superlatives,which are obligatorily definite-marked. Compare Italian, where (i) the only general wayto convey superlative meaning for comparative adverbs is by adding ‘than all the others’and (ii) THE-lacking comparative adverbs can get a superlative reading when appearinginside a relative clause. We have demonstrated that the definiteness marking found onAlbanian superlative adverbs does not constitute evidence in favor of a SupP of the formfound in French or Romanian (see Figure 4). We have instead proposed that Albanian V­modifying superlatives are comparatives embedded inside a definite DP built with a [NmannerØ], the DP itself being marked with Ablative Case. In so far as it lacks SupP, Albanian resembles Italian. The difference is that Italian does not have V-modifying DPsmade up of comparatives that modify a null [NmannerØ].

29We have also shown that quantity superlatives behave on a par with qualitysuperlatives when occurring in postnominal and ‘adverbial’ positions. In the prenominalposition, on the other hand, quantity superlatives have the form of ‘adverbial’ superlatives. We have shown that this form can be explained by assuming that prenominal quantity superlatives are definite DPs built with a [NQuantityØ], which sit in Spec, Meas.

30Our analysis of Albanian superlative V-modifiers can be seen as an illustration ofMatushansky’s (2008) claim that the definite marking of superlatives signals DP-structure even in those configurations in which we would not expect it, e.g., whensuperlatives are ‘adverbial’, more precisely V-modifiers. We however do not follow Matushansky in assuming that all definite-marked superlatives involve DP-configurations. Indeed, French and Romanian provide evidence in favor of the presenceof THE inside a dedicated SupP in which no DP level is present (see the French example (13) analyzed as in Figure 4).

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1 We follow Abney (1987) and subsequent literature in assuming that an expression such as the book is in fact a DP (determiner phrase) rather an NP (noun phrase). This is known in the literature as the DP-hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the determiner the in the phrase the book is the head and takes the noun book as its complement. Since the head is occupied by a determiner, the entire projection is a determiner phrase (henceforth, DP).

2 As explained in point 2. below, the definite article on the adjective (in pre-nominal position) or on the noun (when the adjective is post-nominal) is first merged under D° and attaches to either the adjective or the noun, depending on which one is DP-initial.

3 For a more thorough discussion concerning the syntactic distribution of adjectival agreement markers in Albanian such as , see Trommer (2002) and Alexiadou (2014: 80-90).

4 For a generalized use of distinct functional heads for each distinct class of adjectives, see Cinque (2010).

5 The only context in which Italian comparative adjectives can be interpreted as superlative is inside relativeclauses (see Loccioni’s 2018 examples in 54a). Even in such contexts, the Albanian counterpart requires adefinite marking on the comparative adverb as shown in (i):
Vajz-a    që    shkruan  më    së  mir-i.
     girl.DEF that writes    CMP SË good.DEF.
The girl who writes the best.

6 appears with some V-modifiers in the positive forms: së bashku “together”, së afërmi “near”, së andejmi “from there”, së tepërmi “in excess”, etc. However, cannot appear with V-modifiers in the comparative forms: *më së afër, *më së tepër.

7 As is well-known, quantity superlatives do not have absolute readings (see Gawron 1995). Note also thatthe proportional reading of MANY/MUCH is crosslinguistically rare and never allowed in postnominalpositions (Dobrovie-Sorin & Giurgea 2021). As also pointed out by Dobrovie-Sorin & Giurgea, Albanianpatterns with Italian in that the proportional reading of MANY/MUCH is only possible in partitiveconfigurations.

8 Example (17) can also take a frequency interpretation. The sentence says that the speaker playsinstruments more frequently than other relevant participants. In such cases, the quantity superlative is to beanalyzed as a V-modifier (on a par with the quantity superlatives in the previous section, see (16a-b) rather than as a prenominal quantity expression.

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Table des illustrations

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Légende Figure 3: Representation of the superlative DP in (6)
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Légende Figure 4: Representation of the superlative adverb in (13)
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Légende Figure 5: Representation of V-modifying superlatives
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Légende Figure 6: Representation of the superlative DP in (17)
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Légende Figure 7: Representation of the quantity superlatives sitting in Spec,Meas
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Bujar Rushiti et Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin, « Les superlatifs et la définitude en albanais »Scolia, 35 | 2021, 125-140.

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Bujar Rushiti et Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin, « Les superlatifs et la définitude en albanais »Scolia [En ligne], 35 | 2021, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2021, consulté le 20 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Bujar Rushiti

Université de Paris – LLF, Universiteti AAB

Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin

Université de Paris CNRS-LFF

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Les contenus de la revue Scolia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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