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I came across a previous question (Why does English have an indefinite article ?) about the origins of the English indefinite article which question was closed due to it being posed in an - ironically - indefinite manner, without a real focus to the question.

I have an ongoing interest from a conceptual point of view.

Daniel B Wallace in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics states of the Greek article (there is only one in Greek) :

One of the greatest gifts bequeathed by the Greeks to Western civilization was the article. [p207.]

Daniel Wallace states of the article (that is to say, the idea of an article per se) that it identifies.

The function of the article is not, primarily, to make something definite. The article intrinsically has the ability to conceptualize.

He argues that without an article one is discussing a quality that can only be described. The article, by its very presence, indicates that a concept is identifiable. If identifiable, then the entity or object may be titled or named, and may, thus, be conceptualised as a thing rather than as a quality.

This division between quality and identity is a strong feature of Greek.

If what Wallace says is true, concerning the gift bequeathed by Greek to Western civilization, then why was it necessary (conceptually) to introduce other articles ? And, if Peter Masters also is correct (and I do not doubt that he is so) why do we now have five articles in English (zero-some-a/an-the-null) ?

Why do we need, conceptually, more than quality/identity in English ? is my question.

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    It's not just English. It's, also, for instance, all the Romance languages.
    – Lambie
    Dec 24, 2019 at 16:36
  • @Lambie . . . . which also interests me, since it is the concept that I am after. But taking English as the example, of course.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 24, 2019 at 16:43
  • Try Latin unus. Merry, merry!
    – Lambie
    Dec 24, 2019 at 17:17
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    We need to be clear about which languages have or do not have an indefinite (or definite, for that matter) article. Many languages use an indefinite article, using the word ‘one’. Some languages, such as Russian, have no definite article. Nor did Latin. Strictly ancient Greek did have a sort of indefinite article, the enclitic word (called an indefinite pronoun) ‘tis’ (τις). Wallace’s use of the word ‘identifies’ is a little misleading, if it gets us into ideas of ‘identity’. A better word would be ‘specifies’. [continued]
    – Tuffy
    Dec 24, 2019 at 19:26
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    Wallace is just being a Greek scholar, that's all. To a Greek scholar, all the good things we have came from the Greeks, and this is just another example. There is no connection whatsoever between any Greek article (or pronoun) and any English article, or pronoun. Except that both languages are Indo-European, and therefore have cognate roots here and there. Dec 25, 2019 at 1:30

2 Answers 2

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(Let me say that it is very unlikely that other European languages developed articles because of Greek)

Why it spawned is basically unanswerable, but as for where it came from - in European languages, definite articles tend to come from determiners ('this', 'that' - note that Italian il, Spanish el, French le all come from Latin ille), whereas indefinite articles tend to come from the number 'one' (again with the example of the Romance languages, French, Italian, and Spanish un all come from unus.)

Indeed, in Old English, 'an' and 'one' were the same word, ān.

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  • The same is true in German and Dutch.
    – phoog
    Feb 3, 2020 at 3:57
  • Food for thought. Thank you. Accepted.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:45
  • And Swedish, Danish, Norwegian en/et/ett
    – Billy Kerr
    Dec 22, 2023 at 13:09
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Of course the answer to these sort of questions are always at best educated speculation. Why words mean what they do is dependent on the cumulative decisions of tens of millions of people most of whom are dead, and most of whom lived in a very different world, linguistic environment and society than we do.

However, if I might add my (perhaps uneducated) speculation, I'd say it seems the answer is in the etymology. "The" in English comes ultimately from demonstrative pronouns like "this" or "that" whereas "a" comes from "one", as in the number one. This is also true in many other languages, including most Romance languages.

And so if we consider these sentences:

It is that book. I went to that party. This man is the leader.

compared to

It is one book. I went to one party. One man is the leader.

I think it is evident how these usages capture the idea of definiteness and indefiniteness, and how, through time, it could transform into the meanings we have today. If we step away from the strictly cardinal meaning of "one" it is easy to understand these sentences as:

It is one book (among many). I went to one party (among many). One man (among the many) is the leader.

It is also worth considering the relationship of "one" in the sense of the indefinite personal pronoun. The indefiniteness is captured even today in that specific usage. For example, compare these two sentences:

One should pay one's taxes.

verses:

You should pay your taxes.

The second is rather accusatory, and in many respects the difference in meaning is specifically one of indefiniteness, which is to say the first does not refer to a particular person, but an indefinite person, whereas the second refers to a specific person.

And so I think in this one can see that "one" is used in less of a cardinal, numeric sense even in today's language.

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