The Definite Article with Class Nouns in English and in French

One of the linguists who were interested in the history of the English language - Barbara M. H. Strang, in

The Definite Article with Class Nouns in English and in French

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1. General Overview of the Category of Article in English and French


1.1 Article. General notion


An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun and to specify the volume or numerical scope of that reference. Article can be also thought of as a special kind of adjective, because it combines with a noun and contributes to the meaning of the noun-phrase. Many linguists place the article in the category of determiners. M. Ia. Blokh in his book “Theoretical Grammar of the English Language” says “The article is a determining unit of specific nature accompanying the noun in communicative collocation.” The linguists L. A. Barmina and I. P. Verkhovskaya have the same idea about the article as a determiner. They attribute it to a syntactic class of words called determiners which modify a noun. The dictionary of Thesaurus gives the definition of the word “article” as a determiner that may indicate the specificity of reference of a noun phrase. Websters New World College Dictionary refers to the article as used as adjectives. Also in this context we would like to add the words of the linguist B. Ilyish who devoted a whole chapter of his book “Stroi sovremennogo angliyskogo eazika” to the study of the article. He remarks that the article is usually a separate unit which may be divided from its noun by other words, chiefly adjectives.

So, we may conclude that the first feature of the article can be that the article is a determiner of the noun that refers to, that is why it can have some functions of an adjective and it is used as a separate unit.

Another feature of the article is that articles, definite or indefinite, are traditionally considered to form a separate part of speech. V. L. Kaushanskaya in her book “The Grammar of the English Language” specifies the article as a structural part of speech. In E. M. Gordons book “A Grammar of Present-Day English” we also meet the notion of a structural word as the linguist gives the following definition of the article: “The article is a structural word specifying the noun”.

According to these two definitions we can define the second feature of the article it is a structural word.

Judging upon the definitions given by the different linguists and the dictionaries listed above we can draw a conclusion and deduce a general definition for the article that would include all its features: An article is a structural part of speech, which is combined with a noun to determine it.


1.2 Articles in English


There are two articles in Modern English which are called the indefinite and the definite article. The absence of the article, which may be called the zero article, also specifies the noun and has significance.

The indefinite article has the forms a and an. The form a is used before words beginning with a consonant sound (a book, a table, a door). The form an is used before words beginning with a vowel sound (an apple, an hour, an aim). The article is pronounced [ə], [ən]; when stressed it is pronounced [eı], [æn].


1.2.1 The Definite Article in English

The definite article has one graphic form the, which is pronounced in two ways: [∂ı:] before a vowel sound [∂ı: ΄æpl] and [∂ə] before a consonant sound [∂ə ΄pen]. This article is used before nouns in the plural, as well as before nouns in the singular number.


1.2.2 The History of the Definite Article in English

Examining the definite article by M.A. Gashinas book “English Grammar Higher School” we find some words about its history. The linguist says that the definite article the is a weakened form of the Old English demonstrative pronoun se (nominative se; dative ΄þæm; accusative ΄þone, etc.) which in Old English, besides the function of a demonstrative, had also the function of the definite article. The form “se” was in the masculine gender, “seo”- feminine, and “þæt”- neuter. source gives the information that in Middle English all these kinds of the demonstrative pronoun had merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the. It says that in Middle English the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter Thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive form came to resemble a у shape. As such the use of a у with an e above it as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James “Version of the Bible” in places such as Romans 15:29 or in the Mayflower Compact. The article was never pronounced with a у sound, even so written.

One of the linguists who were interested in the history of the English language - Barbara M. H. Strang, in her book “A History of English” states that the definite article was by 1170 only marginally related to the pronoun system. It had two distinct types throughout the period. In most parts of the country it was indeclinable þe, later the, or at the very most it varied between singular þe and plural þa. However, in the S and SW Mid it was declinable, with three genders in the singular and up to four cases. Where it had declinable forms they were the same as those for the further- demonstrative, that, since, in fact, they had originated in a special use of that form. The forms set out below were in some parts only demonstrative, in others they had double function; they are presented for reference-purposes, but they tend to suggest far more differentiation than most speakers knew. In the masc sg there were four forms: se, subj; þene, þane, acc; þan, þene, Kt þa(Kentish), later þo, dat (i.e., some speakers reduced the case-system to three even here). The fem sg usually had three forms: seo, si (SW and SE) subj; þa, later þo, enclitic to, oblique; þer, þære, gen. The neuter (like the 3rd person pronoun) had the same form for subj and direct obj þet or þat (according to dialect, but a tended to invade e-areas, as a weak form, or by internal borrowing, or both); the dat was usually þan, the gen þes or þas . In the plural all the genders had subj-obj þa, later þo, dat or oblique þan, gen þere.

The linguist emphasizes that after the very beginning of Middle English period, and outside Kt, case and gender distinctions , in article or demonstrative, occur only patchily, and then in circumstances showing that their historical functions have been forgotten. Otherwise, except for some persistence of plural tho, the definite article has become fully indeclinable by the end of the period.

As the definite article comes from the demonstrative pronoun of Old English it had preserved its demonstrative meaning that is still felt in such expressions as nothing of the (that) kind; at the (that) time; under the (those) circumstances; for the (that) purpose; The lady (= this lady) is waiting to see you.

Thus we can draw the conclusion that the definite article takes its origin from the Old English demonstrative pronoun se which was declinable in conformity with the gender, number and case of the noun it modified. Later in the Middle English it changed into þe with nouns in singular and þa with nouns in plural that became the in the Present-day English. The definite article retained its demonstrative meaning throughout all the periods of the English language development and nowadays its first and most important meaning is one of a demonstrative.


1.3 The Article in French Grammar


The etymology of the word “article” comes from Latin articulus and it means “small member”.

According to the French linguist Maurice Grevisse article is a word placed before the noun in order to mark that this noun is taken in its complete or incomplete determined meaning; it also serves to indicate the gender and the number of the noun it precedes.

N.B. Grevisse also says in his book “Le bon usage” that the article can be arranged among the adjectives as it serves to introduce the noun.

Thus, comparing with English we see that in the French grammar the article is also placed before the noun. It also has the function of a determiner. But, as distinct from the English article the article in French besides its determination of the noun semantically has the function of determining it from the grammatical point of view. It serves to indicate the nouns gender and number. Hence it appears the first difference between the articles in English and in French.

There are two types of articles in French: definite(défini) and indefinite(indéfini).

Note: it is distinguished often the third type of the article in French the partitif article, but this one can be relevant by its forms to the definite article and by its meaning it can be belonged to the group of the indefinite article.

So, we find out the second difference between the articles of the two languages. The English and the French Languages have three types of articles and we saw that the first two types coincide in their names: definite and indefinite. Speaking about the third type of articles in both languages it should be noted that in English it is called zero article and in written speech it is rendered by the absence of the article but in French it is called the partitif article which has four forms but we will speak about them in greater length in 1.3.3


1.3.1 The Definite Article in French


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