In general in English, we don't ever apply the definitive article to languages. We don't say "He speaks the Japanese" or "It was originally written in the French."

But for translated books, they are very often prefaced with a note phrased as Translated from the Spanish or Translated from the Arabic.

Where does this odd form originate? What is the reason for this grammatical deviation?

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    Isn't Translated from the Spanish a result of omitting the type of document from the end? That is, Translated from the Spanish version or Translated from the Spanish text. Mar 9 '21 at 17:53
  • 4
    Usually, I see this form with the word "original" inserted: e.g. "Translated from the original Spanish" In this case, the need for "the" is more clear. It says that Spanish is the original language for this book, while "Translated from original Spanish" might imply that Spanish is the original language period, or that maybe there's some form of Spanish called "original Spanish" which is different from regular Spanish somehow. Mar 10 '21 at 15:54
  • It's a bit outdated Mar 10 '21 at 17:20
  • I don't think this is universal. I'm an RP speaker from the UK and I'm pretty sure I haven't heard it in 'in the wild'. I have heard it in US media, albeit only from stuffy professor types who curiously often otherwise speak the same RP I do
    – Tristan
    Mar 11 '21 at 16:25
  • Instead of imagining an omitted noun, I'm inclined to interpret "Spanish" as a noun referring to the usage of the language (rather than to the language itself), as in "Can you read the Spanish on this menu?". It feels analogous to "He built it with the lumber" vs. "He built it with lumber".
    – Karl
    Mar 11 '21 at 18:46

“the adj” is a reduced form that removes a noun (which is usually obvious from context) because the adjective is what really matters.

In this case, “the Spanish” probably means “the Spanish version”, though there are several other words that would give the same overall meaning.

  • I’ve always taken, say, ‘the Greek’ to mean ‘the Greek word’, ‘the Greek root’, etc. Mar 10 '21 at 3:42
  • 1
    @Fivesideddice For individual words, sure. OP’s example was an entire book.
    – StephenS
    Mar 10 '21 at 4:26
  • 2
    I think it's a contraction of "the Spanish of Miguel de Cervantes", "the German of Goethe", etc. You see this form pretty often on old book covers. Example.
    – scurest
    Mar 10 '21 at 10:08
  • 2
    @scurest “the adj of X” is still missing a noun before “of”.
    – StephenS
    Mar 10 '21 at 18:28
  • 2
    @StephenS "Spanish" and "German" are also nouns, referring to the respective languages, no?
    – Ethan B.
    Mar 11 '21 at 2:46

In English, the definite article "the" has often been used in an idiomatic way with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article..

Once, the use of "the" with a language was much more prevalent than it is today. Here are two old citations from the Oxford English Dictionary:

"Let not your studying the French make you neglect the English" (1760).

"Every advantage that … a complete knowledge of the Arabic could afford" (1795).

The OED says people use "the" with languages in an elliptical way – that is, they’re mentally deleting part of a longer phrase. Examples: "translated from the Spanish [version]" … or "from the [original] German" or "from the Japanese [language]."

According to an online article:

Rule 7.12: Use the definite article when the word language immediately follows the name of a language.

English is hard.

The English language is hard.

Bill wants to learn Chinese.

Bill wants to learn the Chinese language.

  • 7
    Bill's going to have some trouble--there's more than one chinese language!
    – Hearth
    Mar 10 '21 at 15:29
  • 1
    @Justin There's no context for that quote, though, so it seems just as likely to be saying "Let not your studying the French [people] make you neglect the English [people]", or, in other words, "Don't lose your loyalties and sell out your people as a result of spying on your enemies".
    – nick012000
    Mar 11 '21 at 8:06
  • 3
    @nick012000 "I am glad to hear that you are so far advanced in learning the French tongue [...] After all, my dear Sophy, let not your studying the French make you neglect the English, which is, by far, the most excellent language of the two [...]" Google Books
    – xngtng
    Mar 11 '21 at 10:02
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    @zhantongz - Good find!
    – Justin
    Mar 11 '21 at 10:03
  • 1
    @Hearth Yes, but only one written one (admittedly with two character sets).
    – BoldBen
    Mar 13 '21 at 11:03

It's similar to asking the question "What's the Spanish for -something-". For example "What's the Spanish for Supermarket?"

In that case someone is asking for a specific Spanish word (the answer is 'supermercado'). In the case of "Translated from the Spanish" the writer is referring to a specific Spanish text. For example if the quote related to the windmills passage in Don Quixote the English might have the subscript "Translated from the Spanish" where "The Spanish" related to that passage in Don Quixote and not to, say, a guide to the Alhambra.

When we say "Does he speak Spanish?" the question is about the subject's ability to speak (and understand) Spanish generally. This would include the ability to read Don Quixote, understand a sound guide to the Alhambra and to describe a fault with his car to a Spanish mechanic.

  • 3
    Your bar is high. I know of a lot of people who couldn't describe a fault with their car to a mechanic in their native language, and I think that most highschoolers in my region haven't read Don Quixote.
    – Conrado
    Mar 10 '21 at 1:53
  • @Conrado "The engine is making a weird noise" is a complete description of a fault, if not a very useful one.
    – Carcer
    Mar 10 '21 at 8:49
  • @Conrado I'm not setting any bars, those were only descriptions of things you could do if you were fluent in a language. I have so little knowledge of Spanish that, of all the vast array of Spanish literature Cervantes is the only name I know and my sentence construction is pretty much limited to "Una cerveza por favor". My point is that, in English, we say "Translated from the Spanish" for a specific text "What is the Spanish for (a specific word)" but "Does he speak Spanish" when referring to the ability to hold conversations (unlike me).
    – BoldBen
    Mar 11 '21 at 2:16
  • I would never say something like "What's the Spanish (or Swedish or German...) for Bicycle?" It just doesn't sound right to me. I think "What's the Greek word for Potato?" would be better, or depending on the thing, maybe "How do you say Whiskey in French?" Mar 12 '21 at 9:14
  • @KevinFegan That surprises me, "what's the 《language》for 《word or phrase》?" is absolutely standard in my life. Where are you from, maybe that makes a difference? The useful thing is that whether the target language expresses the concept as a word or a phrase "what's the 《language》..." is logical. Having said that I'd use any of "What's the 《language》for ...?"; "What's the 《language》word for ...?" or "How do you say ... in 《language》?" forms pretty much equally. However I'd tend to use "How do you say ... ?" for more complex things than single words.
    – BoldBen
    Mar 13 '21 at 10:42

Definition of Spanish 1: the Romance language of the largest part of Spain and of the countries colonized by Spaniards https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Spanish

We see from the above definition that "Spanish" means "the language of Spain etc."

So, in this meaning, if you wrote "the Spanish" you would effectively be writing "the the language of Spain"

So, if I say, "I speak Spanish" I mean "I speak the language", if I said "I speak the Spanish" I would mean, "I speak the the language."

In the case of a translated text, we are not translating the entire Spanish language that would require us to translate a dictionary. We are instead referring to the original text. The phrase "Translated from the Spanish" is conventionally understood to mean, "Translated from the Spanish text."

  • 10
    I think your reliance on the MW definition is a little spurious. MW also defines “table” as “a piece of furniture”. That doesn’t mean referring to “a table” is effectively writing “a a piece of furniture”.
    – pbasdf
    Mar 10 '21 at 8:54

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