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In Italian possessive adjectives are preceded by a definite article: “il mio amico” (the my friend), “la nostra casa”, “i tuoi libri”. The article however is always dropped with singular nouns indicating family relationship: “mio padre”, “mia sorella”, “mio cugino”, and it comes back in the case of plurals: “i miei fratelli”, “i miei cugini”. So we have the case where for “my husband” we can either use “mio marito” without article, and also “il mio uomo” (my man) with the article, both meaning the same thing - the latter being less common but perfectly acceptable, as we find in Spanish too. In the plural case, it’s again “i miei mariti” and “i miei uomini”. The same goes for “my wife/wives”.

AFAIK this exception is peculiar to Italian. In at least three other Romance languages the article is added to the possessive adjective, but in all cases this includes singular family nouns too. I.e. in Portuguese (but not in Brazil) and Catalan it’s “o meu pai” and “el meu pare” for “my father” , and in Romanian “frate-le meu” for “my brother”, all cases retaining the article.

The Italian language is well known for using definite articles quite liberally, before dates, weekdays, numbers, in some cases even in front of personal names as it is the case of the Milanese dialect: “il Giorgio”, “la Maria”. So I wonder what’s the origin of this “economy of expression” reserved to a family member.

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    In Asturian, you use the definite (or indefinite) article in front of possessive adjectives (les mios coses, un mio llibru), except for family: depending on generation, you omit one or the other: mio güela, el fíu. Number doesn't affect it: mios güeles, los fiyos. Note that in Spanish "el mi hombre" is not correct, it's "mi hombre" by itself, or "el hombre mío". In Eur. Portuguese and Catalonian, it may be worth noting that the articles also go in front of given names as a general rule, too. – user0721090601 Oct 29 '17 at 19:47
  • @guifa Thanks for the interesting comment. When I mentioned Spanish I was referring to the parallelism "marito/uomo" and "marido/hombre" in Italian/Spanish, with the second option being less common, not to the use of the article. Good that you pointed that out as it was not clear the way I put it. – betelgeuse Oct 29 '17 at 22:14
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    In Brazilian Portuguese, "o meu pai" is correct and usual (except in Bahia, but there the drop of the article goes much further than this particular case). And so are such constructions with other familial relationships. The forms without article are also used, though. – Luís Henrique Oct 30 '17 at 17:18
  • I have no qualifications beyond being a native Italian speaker, but there are more exceptions (e.g. casa mia, my house). Moreover you do use the article if you have to talk about a specific relation, rather than one implied by context (Il mio cugino che vive in America, my cousin who lives in America), so the situation is rather more complicated. – Denis Nardin Oct 31 '17 at 14:18
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    In Romanian, the variants al meu frate and frate-meu also exist, which, as far as I can tell, are the exact equivalents of the Italian forms you presented. – Lucian Jan 11 '18 at 12:57
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Generally (in Central Italian), the definite article always accompanies a possessive pronoun - except when referring to a certain kinship names (singenionimi) in the singular. These are:

  • padre, madre, figlio, figlia

In many dialects of Italian this is extended to include:

  • mamma, papà, fratello, sorella, zio/-a, cugino/-a
    nonno/-a, moglie, marito, cognato/-a, suocero/-a

Note, the article is required for these variations of the above exceptions:

  • plurals - i miei genitori - DET my parents
  • synonyms - la mia mamma - DET my mommy
  • diminutives - la mia sorellina - DET my sister.DIMIN
  • third person - il loro fratello - DET their brother
  • derived terms - la mia bisnonna - DET my great-grandmother
  • adjective modified forms - la mia nonna materna - DET my grandmother maternal

And is often also included in these circumstances:

  • In sentences with specific emphasis (where the possessive is normally postponed):

    "il figlio mio", "il nonno mio"

  • Where the kinship name is accompanied by an anthroponym (first name or surname)

(Note: In some other Romance languages of Northern Italy, for example Venetian, articles proceed all personal names, and so this feature (though prescriptively proscribed for Standard Italian) may extend to these cases in dialects of Italian influenced by these languages.)


Notably, this is in fact a feature of the other two Romance languages you mention:

In Catalan, the article is required for almost all nouns, e.g.:

  • el meu cotxe - DET my car
  • la meva planta - DET my plant

But in certain dialects, with the following classes of noun:

  • some kinship terms
  • names of relatives
  • the nouns casa ("house; home") and vida ("life")
  • and in certain fossilised expressions

alternate forms (the weak/unstressed possessive adjectives) absent the definite article may be used (how common this is is dependent upon the specific dialect):

  • mon avi, ta mare, ses nétes1 - my grandfather, your mother, their granddaughters
  • Sa Majestat - His/Her Majesty
  • Vine a ma casa - Come to my house
  • En ma vida no havia vist un espectacle semblant - Never in my life have I seen such a spectacle

1. Note that unlike Italian, in dialects of Catalan that have this feature it can also apply to plurals of kinship terms.


And in Portuguese when referring to singular kinship terms, the definite article may also be dropped (note: this is more common in Brazilian Portuguese than Iberian):

  • Minha irmã mora em [sic] Alemanha - My sister lives in Germany
  • Meu pai é engenheiro My father is an engineer

And in very formal/religious addresses:

  • Pai Nosso, que está no céu… - Our Father, who art in heaven…
  • Nosso Senhor - Our Lord
  • Vossa Excelência - Your Excellence

And in a few fossilised expressions:

  • a seu prazer
  • por minha vontade
  • a meu ver

etc


Similar features are present in some non-Romance languages also.

In Mandarin Chinese, for family members, the possessive particle 的 (de) can be omitted:

  • 我妈妈 (Wǒ māma) - I mother (meaning My mother)

instead of

  • 我的妈妈 (Wǒ de māma) - I POSS mother (My mother)

Note: This construct can be used with certain other close but non-familial terms too:

  • 我朋友 (Wǒ péngyǒu) - I friend (My friend)

and also in Cantonese:

  • 我姑姐 (nɡo5 gu1ze1) - I aunt (my aunt)
  • 我嘅姑姐 (nɡo5 ɡe3 gu1ze1) - I POSS aunt (my aunt)


Sources:

Acquisition, variation, change: On the definite article and kinship nouns in Italian
Grande grammatica italiana di consultazione, Lorenzo Renzi (1988)
Split Possession: An Areal-linguistic Study of the Alienability Correlation and Related Phenomena in the Languages of Europe
The Uses of the Definite and Indefinite Article in Portuguese
Kinship in grammar
http://dcvb.iecat.net/results.asp?Word=mon "Ús literari i dialectal"
Uso dell'articolo e dell'aggettivo possessivo coi nomi di parentela
https://www.reddit.com/r/linguistics/comments/3myusr/why_does_italian_use_the_definite_article_for/

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  • Very nice summary but could merit some attempt at explanation. IMO the reason is the strong resemblance of the syngenionyms (is that even a word?) to proper names in everyday usage, but only in their very basic form (non-diminutive, non-modified, etc.) and with a proper possessive pronoun (mio, tuo from Latin meus, tuus as opposed to loro, which is not an original possessive pronoun as it comes from illorum, genitive plural of ille). – Eleshar Dec 24 '19 at 17:06

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