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In the question “La” or “le” before a person's name? on the French SE site, the asker refers to the phenomenon that in some rural/dialect settings the first name of a person is preceded by the definite article.

The same construction is always used in Austria in spoken German, although it is considered wrong in school in a written essay.

I am interested in the history and distribution of this phenomenon:

Are there other Germanic/Romanic languages that use the definite article for first names at least in dialects? Is there a reason it is considered "bad" informal style? From a purely literal point of view, the definite article seems quite fine.

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This is common colloquially in other German regions. The use also occurs in Czech (this is the provenance of the phrase 'The Donald' in English, because Ivana Trump used to refer to her husband that way). –  Mitch Sep 13 '11 at 21:21
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@Mitch: How colloquial is it, exactly? I remember learning this use of the article with proper names in German in (Dutch) high school. It looked strange to us, but we assumed it was "normal" in German... –  Cerberus Sep 14 '11 at 0:33
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Of course, in English (and German and lots of other languages) this is also common in the plural, e.g. the Flintstones, the Jetsons, etc. –  Timwi Sep 14 '11 at 0:37
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This is an interesting question, but I'm not crazy about the way it's currently phrased. Can you clarify what you're actually asking? Are you looking for something other than a list of examples? –  JSBձոգչ Sep 14 '11 at 1:51
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@Mitch: How in Czech? AFAIK Czech (like the other East and West Slavonic languages) doesn't have articles. –  Colin Fine Oct 15 '12 at 17:26

10 Answers 10

up vote 11 down vote accepted

As far as I know, in European Portuguese the use of the definite article with people's names is considered standard, and not using it is very formal. In Modern Greek (not a Romance or Germanic language, but still relevant) it is mandatory (except, naturally, in the vocative), and not using it would be considered ungrammatical.

As for why it is considered "bad style" in languages that have it in dialects but not in the standard language, I think it's mostly a problem of the standard language being based on an older form than current vernaculars (Written French in particularly is quite archaising compared to Spoken French), a form where personal names cannot take the article. Since anything not part of the standard is considered "wrong" (the typical prescriptivist view), personal names with articles are considered "wrong" as well.

The use of definite articles with personal names typically appears rather late in the evolution of definite articles. Definite articles typically originate from demonstrative determiners whose meaning gets eroded with time (from "this man" to "the man"). From anaphoric/cataphoric/spatial use to "simple" definition, the erosion of meaning carries on, and as it does the article's use becomes more and more mandatory, for more and more nouns (basically, it stops adding a specific meaning, and starts being seen as just something that must be used with nouns that are considered definite, even if they would still be considered definite without it). You can see this evolution by looking at how different languages use the definite article:

  • In English, the definite article is still considered to add definition to a noun, and for this reason is normally not used with nouns that are semantically definite, like concepts (you say "peace", not *"the peace"), proper nouns (names of countries, regions, towns, etc.) and personal names;
  • In French, the article has a much less strong meaning by itself, and is used more often than in English. For instance, concepts in French do take the article ("la paix"), as well as country and region names ("la France, la Bretagne"). Other proper nouns (e.g. names of towns) sometimes take the article and sometimes do not, and it's difficult to describe this use in terms of rules. As for personal names, they normally don't take the article, although some rural dialects do so (but the vast majority of French people, at least in France, don't use articles with personal names);
  • In Modern Greek, the erosion of meaning is nearly complete (maybe because the definite article has been extant for more than 2000 years!): it doesn't really add definition to nouns, rather it must appear when a noun is definite, whether this definition is semantic, pragmatic, or due to other determiners. So in Greek the definite article is used with all proper nouns without exception, but it is even used in addition to the demonstrative adjectives (so "this man" is "αυτός ο άνθρωπος", literally "this the man").

So, whether using the definite article with people's names is "bad style" or not could be said to depend on the prescriptivist's view of what the definite article's role is: if its role is to add definiteness to a noun, then it's more likely to be considered incorrect to add it to nouns that are already definite by meaning, like people's names. If its role, however, is merely to indicate that a noun is definite, then it is more likely to be acceptable to use it with nouns that are already semantically definite.

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The sheer wealth of linguistic information I learned from this post is staggering. Thank you. –  Sean Jan 27 '13 at 5:35

Most speakers of Brazilian Portuguese (the exception that comes to mind is the dialect spoken in Bahia), when referring to someone in an informal context, use definite articles before the personal name:

A Maria vem amanhã.
DEF Maria comes.3sg.PRES tomorrow
Maria comes tomorrow.

But in more formal contexts, such as newspaper articles, for example, the article is not used.

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That's actually a diagnostic test for what is a "Proper Noun" in English-- it resists taking an article.* I've seen the Fonz on TV. To my ear, "the Fonz" sound like a title and if I was asked if they were transferable, I'd say yes. I would guess it would be bad style if it communicates something slightly different between when it is included or not included.

*_ My source is Paine's "Describing Morphosyntax" I'd look up the page number, but it's at home.

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Though the poem usually referred to today as Beowulf was referred to in the 18th/19th century sometimes as the Beowulf (presumably on the model of the Iliad, the Odyssey). –  emacsomancer Sep 13 '11 at 21:58
    
as long as that reference was to the poem, not the character, that would actually not break the rule, would it? –  Marc Schulder Sep 13 '11 at 22:14
    
I had a related blog post on this a while back in the context of "the Rubik's cube" jtauber.com/blog/2008/03/27/… –  James Tauber Sep 21 '11 at 0:55
    
As that blog post linked above mentions, there is also "The Donald" –  James Tauber Sep 21 '11 at 0:56
    
It's p. 39. And he groups articles with quantifiers and other modifiers as not being taken (easily) proper nouns, and so being a way to characterise them. But testing with articles is not ideal as there are many arthrous (=article taking) proper nouns, such as The Azores, The Cameroon, The White House, The BBC, The USA etc. I think this test is more consistently useful with personal names than with proper nouns in general. –  Gaston Ümlaut Jul 13 '12 at 5:57

This is standard in classical Greek for all names (and I think all proper nouns). In modern Spanish usage varies by region, but generally the article is used only with the names of relatives or close friends.

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In classical Greek, articles can be used with proper names as freely as with regular nouns, yes; I assume you didn't mean that they are always used with proper names (which is not the case), but it wasn't entirely clear to me what you meant by "standard". –  Cerberus Sep 14 '11 at 0:29
    
My understanding (from very limited Greek study) was that (personal) names do require a definite article. Is that wrong? –  Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Sep 14 '11 at 2:36
    
@AnschelSchafer-Cohen: If you look at this page of Plato's Apology, you will see that most of the proper names don't have articles. I believe the use of articles with proper names is much the same as with regular nouns: articles are used rather freely, or at least not always where we would expect them. But your central argument stands, that articles are possible and not infrequent with proper names. –  Cerberus Sep 14 '11 at 10:11
    
Some more context on Greek: in Modern Greek, articles are basically obligatorily used with proper names unless the name is in the vocative. I don't know of any exceptions, but it's plausible that there would be a few. –  Constantine Sep 20 '11 at 23:24

Maybe you've already considered this, but it isn't wholly unprescribed in English. The dialects that I am familiar with use the definite article when illustrating contrast.

The Tina I know would never tell me I'll learn to love again.

No, I saw the bald Andrew yesterday; I haven't seen the other Andrew for months.

Of course, this only happens in contexts with multiple possible referents for the name, so it is a bit of a special situation.

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I don't think that's non-standard. When you have more than one person with the same name, you can also say things like "This Andrew, not that Andrew." In all these cases you are picking out one X from many, which you aren't normally doing with proper nouns. –  Alan H. Sep 14 '11 at 0:26
    
Ahhh yes. I didn't mean nonstandard in terms of use; I meant it was a rather specific context and it occurs rarely. Poor word choice; will edit. –  tdhsmith Sep 14 '11 at 0:39
    
Since this isn't about usage (prescribing or proscribing), it comes down to, has this ever been said, do native speakers think it sounds wrong and when you tack on the word "the" to "apple" or "Tina" do they semantically and syntactically work the same. If the example gets weird enough, it become like a degenerate case. "I formed a new band, named in honor of "The The". We're the "The The" that will be playing tonight" –  MatthewMartin Sep 14 '11 at 14:19

I'm not an expert, but in my experience this is common in Galician and Spanish. For example:

  • La Juana dijo que vendría. ([The] Juana said she would come.)
  • O Pepe dixo que non sabe. ([The] Pepe said he doesn't know.)

The cultural implications are delicate. In Spanish, and to my very subjective perception, it has a connotation of uneducated language or extremely coloquial register. In Galician, however, it sounds perfectly OK and does not connote an uneducated person; maybe because of the Portuguese proximity (see answer by @Otavio Macedo).

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As a native Spanish speaker I can tell that it has indeed a connotation of uneducated language. The rationale is, you're referring to a person as an object or animal, and when child you're corrected like this: "You don't say 'el Charly' is not an animal like 'el burro'; call him 'Charly' ". –  OscarRyz Sep 21 '11 at 12:08
    
@OscarRyz: I am a native Spanish speaker too, and to me it is not that clear. There is a connotation of uneducatedness, for sure, but I am aware that it may be related to the Spanish language tradition of prescriptivism and the so-called vulgarisms. So many cultural changes have happened through language, often responding to political agendas. It's complicated. :-) –  CesarGon Sep 21 '11 at 13:45
    
@OscarRyz and CesarGon: I'm also native Spanish speaker, and I think the differences arise because our language is used differently according to the place you use it. Here in Chile it is not so rude to use the article this way, but is generally avoided when writing. –  Nicolás Oct 26 '11 at 20:54
    
@Nicolás: Exactly; that's what I mean. –  CesarGon Oct 26 '11 at 22:07

Names can often be marked definite in the dialects around Bergen (Norwegian), for a dimunitive effect. The definite marker is a suffix however, and not an article per se.

Johan => Johanen

However in the dialects of northern Norway it is very common, more often than not, to prepend the correct personal pronoun before a person's name.

Har du sett han Ron? (have you seen he Ron)?
            ho Ann?                she Aud)?
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The use of "he" and "she" before personal names in Norwegian is to my knowledge the traditional usage in all Norwegian dialects. I think Ivar Aasen mentions in his 19th century work on Norwegian dialects that it was considered disrespectful to leave it out. Today, young speakers of Standard East Norwegian typically (but not always) omit the pronoun. Standard East Norwegian is heavily based on the written norm Bokmål, which in turn is based on Danish. I would suspect that today's norm of omitting the pronoun stems from the fact (?) that Danish does not use pronouns before names. –  Sverre Sep 14 '11 at 5:58
    
@Sverre You might be right. However, in colloquial spoken Danish, accusative pronouns are often inserted before proper names. "Har du set ham (der) Ron?" (Have you seen him (there) Ron?) means something like "Have you seen that Ron guy?". Even when in the nominative case, the accusative pronoun is used "Ham (der) Ron er en flink fyr" (Him (there) Ron is a nice guy). –  dainichi Feb 14 '12 at 8:52

I believe you have to idiomatically translate Romance articles preceding proper names into English demonstratives. Hence, ¿Dónde está la María? becomes something more like Now where is that Maria, anyway?, or some such loose translation with additional fluff to indicate the colloquial register.

Notice how it now doesn’t seem odd to use a demonstrative instead of an article: that is, saying that Maria instead of the Maria. This may relate to the distant origin of la María in illa Maria from Latin, back from before demonstratives became articles. Latin certainly could use demonstatrive adjectives with proper names. For example, you could say ille Caesar, like here and here. When the demonstratives turned into articles, one didn’t stop doing this.

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In Catalan we have the personal article; not using it is incorrect or sounds strange(except in some regions).

Personal article (source: http://esadir.cat/sintaxi/remartperson)

  1. Standard personal article forms are, for masculine first names, en/el/l', and for feminine first names, la/l'.
  2. With only the first name, the use of the personal article is adequate in all registers, except in very ancient historical contexts (biblical, Roman Empire...).
  3. With only the family name or first name and family name, the use of the personal article is more proper in informal registers and dialogues in general. In formal registers (like in the news or documentaries) we don't use this article, because it impresses familiarity. 'Today we are going to interview Pasqual Maragall. *Today we are going to interview the Pasqual Maragall'.
  4. Using the feminine article before women's names is not proper either. In many cases it can be disrespective. Therefore, in a formal context we would not say “the Arantxa Sànchez Vicario”, “the Serena Williams”, but “Arantxa Sànchez Vicario”, “Serena Williams”.
  5. Nor would we say “the Rahola”, just as we would not sat “the Maragall”. We would say “Pilar Rahola”, “Rahola”, “ex-councilor Rahola”, “Mrs. Rahola”... in parallel with the way of naming men: “Pasqual Maragall”, “Maragall”, etc.
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Well, Hungarian is neither Germanic, nor Romance but the definite article is still used sometimes, incorrectly, before names of people. It is very prominent in Budapest, but it is considered incorrect by linguists. I think this kind of use of the definite article is due to Austrian influence.

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Can you give examples of some linguists who consider this incorrect? Elsewhere linguists are more interested in description than prescription, and those most interested in prescription are generally not linguists. –  hippietrail Jul 13 '12 at 9:57

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