Example: The novel by Gabriel García Márquez is titled "El amor en los tiempos del cólera", which, if transliterated to English, should be "The love in the time of the cholera".

But in fact the "correct" translation in English is "Love in the time of cholera".

For comparison, in German we have "Die Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera", in French "L'Amour aux temps du choléra", and in Italian "L'amore ai tempi del colera".

Is it correct to say that English is peculiar in its use of the definite article? And if so, how did this come to be?

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    You might have better luck over at Linguistics.SE. – tchrist Sep 28 '13 at 18:16
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    Of course not. Everybody else is peculiar! :) ... One reason is that the English article has no function except as a determiner: it carries no information, as the article does in other languages, about case and the syntactic relationships case encodes, so the presence/absence of the article has a different significance. – StoneyB Sep 28 '13 at 18:17
  • @ Stoney B : Please post your comment as answer.. – Sweet72 Sep 28 '13 at 19:52
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    No. Languages that have articles (many don't) always use them in ways that seem strange to speakers of other languages. Articles are part of the grammar, and every language has a different grammar, with different uses for even similar classes of words. – John Lawler Sep 29 '13 at 1:33
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    ‘Love’ in the title of this book is also indefinite in the Scandinavian languages, though ‘cholera’ isn’t. As @JohnLawler says, every language is peculiar, English no more so than others. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 29 '13 at 15:22

As John Lawler tells you, every language is “peculiar” in the sense that it has its own way of using (or not using) articles. In German, for instance, your “definite articles” double as what in traditional English grammar would be called relative pronouns, demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives, and even personal pronouns. That strikes English speakers learning German as wholly eccentric and irrational—for Heaven's sake, even the French don’t do that!—until they get the hang of it.

One reason for the “peculiarity” in English use of the is that the carries a different burden of information than nominally “corresponding” terms in other European languages. In the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries English Britain was repeatedly invaded by Scandinavian peoples speaking a variety of Germanic and French dialects; the English language was creolized and almost entirely abandoned morphological distinctions of case and gender. Gender virtually dropped out of the language, and the syntactic contrasts formerly encoded in case morphology came to be expressed primarily by word order and prepositions. Consequently, when English finally settled on the as the canonical “definite article” it had no role to play in encoding case and gender, which are primary functions of the “definite articles” in many other European languages. That left the much freer to find new roles: most prominently, to encode by its presence or absence the “quality” of determination.

  • I don’t think the Scandinavians who invaded Britain from the northeast spoke French dialects, though the Normans who invaded from the southeast did, of course. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 29 '13 at 15:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet It was a mild joke, intended to remind readers that the Norman conquistadores, despite having adopted French, were themselves mostly of Scandinavian origin. – StoneyB Sep 29 '13 at 15:52
  • Ah, I see what you did there now—didn’t notice the plural Scandinavian peoples at first. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 29 '13 at 15:56

The modern Scandinavian languages use the definite article in much the same way as it is used in English (although the form is very different - it is a suffix, except when accompanied by an adjective, in which case its form is similar to that of English and the other Germanic languages). To take the example given, "Love" and "Cholera" would take no article, but "Time" would take the definite article - just like English.

This may possibly have something to do with cross-influences between Old English and Old Norse (the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages) in the Viking period; but it may also be just that both English and Scandinavian were historically on the fringes of European culture, and have therefore not taken on certain features of West European languages which are widespread in the Mainland. Such features have been seen to spread among neighbouring languages regardless of linguistic group: so German and Dutch, although Germanic, share some features with Romance languages which they do not share with English or Scandinavian.

Another example of this is the use, in colloquial speech in Western Mainland European languages, of the present perfect to describe actions which took place at a definite point in the past. Thus the French render "I did it yesterday" as "je l'ai fait hier", and the Germans render it as "ich habe es gestern gemacht"; but the Norwegians render it as "Jeg gjorde det igaar" - "I did it yesterday". The Continental structure is an innovation, which has not spread to Britain (except arguably Cockney) or Scandinavia; and is also not yet fully accepted in written forms of Continenetal languages.

In light of all this, I doubt very much that the English usage of the definite article is the result of an early creolization. On the contrary, it is probably a result of relative isolation and conservatism (in this respect).

  • The French changeover of passé simple to passé composé in speech is a comparatively recent occurrence, as can be shown by its persistence in writing. Simple pasts still exist in the everyday speech of neighboring tongues like Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. I do not think you can draw a parallel between French and German here. – tchrist Apr 29 '14 at 13:07
  • As I said, the use of the present perfect (in French terms, passe compose) in this way is an innovation. So what you correctly say about French is also true of German, which also shows a persistence of the past simple (= passe simple) in writing. As I understand it, of Italian - i.e. the present perfect form is used dcolloquially to to denote past actions As for Spanish and Portuguese, you may wll be right that the past simple – Oliver Apr 30 '14 at 7:33

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