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.

  • 4
    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
  • "The book" identifies a specific book. "A book" lets us discuss something we can't specify down to an individual object. It gives us a way to talk about something more abstract than a single physical object.
    – The Photon
    Dec 24, 2019 at 17:37
  • 4
    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

1 Answer 1


(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.

  • The same is true in German and Dutch.
    – phoog
    Feb 3, 2020 at 3:57

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