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Consider the following minimal pair:

edere panem 'to eat (the) bread'

comedere panem 'to eat up the bread'

When a resultative prefix is present (e.g. com- in comedere), panem is necessarily understood as definite (or at least as specific. See comments below). In contrast, when this prefix is absent (e.g. in edere), panem can be understood as non-specific/partitive (e.g. '(some) bread') but also as definite/specific (e.g. 'the bread'). If so, edere panem is ambiguous (see the parentheses in 'to eat (the) bread') but comedere panem is not: in the latter case only a definite/specific reading of panem is possible. Is this contrast in ambiguity correct? A similar pair would be: bibere vinum vs. ebibere vinum. Furthermore, note that there appears to be a well-known parallelism between Latin prefixes and English particles in these contrasts: e.g. cf. the well-formedness of 'to eat up {the bread/the apples}' vs. the ill-formedness of '*to eat up {bread/apples}'.

Aspectually speaking, it seems clear that in comedere panem we get a telic reading, whereby an appropriate modifier could be 'in X time', whereas in edere panem we (typically?) get an atelic reading, whereby an appropriate modifier could be 'for X time'. However, given the ambiguity above of edere panem, I'd also expect that this unprefixed predicate edere panem could be interpreted as a telic predicate. Is my expectation correct? Cf. also Eng. 'to eat bread for hours' (only atelic reading), 'to eat the bread {for/in} five minutes' ({atelic/telic} reading), and 'to eat the bread up in five minutes' (only telic reading). Note also the aspectual ambiguity of the second case (like in Latin?).

NB I: my present question only holds for Early Latin and Classical Latin. As is well-known, Late Latin is very different in this respect since prefixed verbs like comedere can also be interpreted as atelic/unbounded predicates (i.e., the contrast between edere and comedere is blurred in Late Latin). In Late Latin many subtle (but very important!) distinctions of the prefixation system found in Early and Classical Latin are blurred: for example, erubescere can only be interpreted as a telic change of state verb in Early & Classical Latin ('to become/turn red'). In contrast, erubescere can be interpreted as a stative verb 'to be ashamed' in Late Latin, a reading which is fully impossible in previous stages. Rubere would be used instead (for related discussion, see aret = aridus est? ).

NB II: in Romance languages like Spanish or Catalan the translation of the Latin examples above would be: edere panem Sp. 'comer (el) pan' & comedere panem Sp. 'comerse el pan'. Note the ungrammaticaliy of Sp. *comerse pan. The so-called "completive/aspectual se" requires its direct object be definite/specific.

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  • Interesting question. "When a resultative prefix is present (e.g. com- in comedere), panem is necessarily understood as definite": I would like to read more about this, as unfortunately it is not intuitive for me. If we take this example: "senex etiam, antequam salutatores venirent, panem siccum comedit ad sustentandas vires" does this adheres to this law (since I read this as a bread)? – d_e Oct 23 '20 at 18:59
  • @d_e Thanks for your comment. Cf. your example with the following one: panem nisi siccum numquam comedit eundemque sale atque aliis rebus conditum. First, as emphasized in my NB I above, we should be cautious when dealing with examples of late stages. Second, in Classical Latin the prefixed verb comedit requires a definite/specific reading of panem: cf. 'He eats up {the/a} bread'. NB: panem with the prefixed verb comedere can be understood as 'a bread' if it is specific (definite Nominal Phrases are specific but it's not the case that all specific NPs are definite). – – Mitomino Oct 24 '20 at 1:04
  • Note also that Spanish, unlike English, allows to mantain the topicalized nature of panem in my Latin example above: Sp. 'El pan, si no es seco, no se lo come nunca y este (se lo come) aliñado con sal y otras cosas'. Here the topicalized direct object is naturally seen as definite (el pan 'the bread'). Cf. the ungrammaticality of Sp. Pan, si no es seco, no se lo come nunca with the grammaticality of Pan no come nunca. Cf. the parallelism above between Spanish completive se and English up (cf. the resultative prefix com- in comedere). – Mitomino Oct 24 '20 at 1:07
  • I have no definite answer, but my intuition would agree with your expectations. On a side-note, one thing to consider may be Aktionsart and 'Objeksart': in some cases, those might resolve ambiguity or even force an otherwise impossible reading, especially in poetry. – Cerberus Oct 24 '20 at 18:53

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