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I have a friend from Bulgaria who tends to use the definite article "the" too often. Does anyone know Eastern European languages enough to help me explain to him the rule in English? The example I received today is "the Western civilization":

the ideology behind the fight against “cultural Marxism” is that we need to defend the Western civilization, because in this way, we are defending Christianity. That is, that the survival of Christianity depends on the survival of the Western civilization. "

I consulted this.

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    Slavic languages have no indefinite or definite article so it is impossible to reference those languages to help explain English. – KarlG Sep 13 '18 at 19:43
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    Perhaps you should be happy that he didn’t say “the Marxism” or “the Christianity”.     :-)    ⁠ – Scott Sep 13 '18 at 21:45
  • It could be that he is overcompensating. Bulgarian doesn't have a definite article, and English does, but doesn't use it always. So maybe they just use it always even in instances when English wouldn't. – Mitch Sep 14 '18 at 2:51
  • Slavic and many other languages have no interest in articles; they use noun cases where Frankish or Germanic people use verb tenses. Alone, enough to stop lazy Westerners trying Central, never mind East European tongues. Having met hundreds of Slavics I assure you they readily understand the rules. The problem is, many if not most teachers fail to see, let alone explain the place of nouns in Western languages. "The" in "we need to defend Western civilisation…" matters not. Whether any Western language needs any article depends on context. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 24 '18 at 21:47
  • I gave up trying to explain the rules governing articles when I realized that I can't come up with reliable rules. Specifically, I can't explain why I can catch a cold, or the flu, or pneumonia (without an article). Nor can I explain why, after catching pneumonia, I (an American) was in the hospital whereas a Canadian would (as far as I know) have been in hospital. – Andreas Blass Nov 13 '18 at 3:15
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There is a good article describing the definite (and other) articles at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_(grammar) . If you look at the list of languages with definite articles, almost all come from one of two geographic regions: Polynesian, and Southern and Western IndoEuropean/Afro-Semitic. This is a contiguous area on the map despite it covering two language families and not covering all of IndoEuropean - specifically it leaves out the Slavic languages that include Bulgarian. The definite article in some languages such as Greek and Arabic is, I believe, fairly logical - you put in an article if it is definite. So you can imagine a Bulgarian learning this fairly quickly. In fact the definite article is so common in Arabic that English speakers think it is part of the noun. That is why many nouns from Arabic such as algebra, alcohol, alchemy start with al. Al is simply the definite article but Europeans thought it was part of the noun.

But there is an inner group of languages, again in a neat geographical area - Germanic and Celtic, and to some extent Romance, that have more complicated rules that are hard for anyone (including Bulgarians) to understand. You don't need an article with something definite if it is obviously definite - so no article with names - you don't say the David, and you don't need one with Western Civilization because the word Western makes it clear that we are talking about one specific civilization. Similarly instead of saying the head of the king, we say the king's head, with no article before head. I don't need to go on as there is plenty of discussion on this site about the definite article.

The main point is that the definite article in Western Europe (particularly the North West) is unusually complicated, especially for someone who doesn't have any at all.

  • Greek is not related to Slavic languages, even though the alphabets look similar. The Saints, Cyril and Methodios, were Greek. They devised the Cyrillic alphabet as part of their ministry to the Slavs. In the Greek language, if I am speaking about David to a third person, I say "O David", that is, the David. – Theresa Sep 13 '18 at 23:26

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