Some languages have no definite or indefinite article, for example, I think, Polish. So the Polish word kot could mean "a cat" or "the cat". So in a glossed example, and not knowing the context, how do we represent this in the translation? I guess it could be 'a/the cat', or could you pick one form - definite or indefinite - and stick with that form throughout an essay etc.?

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    Do you really mean in the interlinear gloss, i.e. in the metalanguage representation (2nd line of most linguistic examples), or do you mean in the free translation (3rd line of most linguistic examples)?
    – lapropriu
    Nov 14, 2012 at 22:53
  • @lapropriu I mean the free translation :) Nov 15, 2012 at 10:47
  • I've seen semanticists give example pairs with specified contexts. I've also seen people give 2 translations. 'a/the' looks ok to me too, but I think picking one form as a convenient shorthand is not ideal. Suppose a reader doesn't carefully read your paper but just glances at your examples.
    – lapropriu
    Nov 15, 2012 at 21:55
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    Does not English use zero article in such circumstates? I saw several examples when zero article was used when it was hard to choose.
    – Anixx
    Nov 16, 2012 at 1:11
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    @Anixx, you can't just choose to drop an article from a count noun in English. "Cat sat on the mat" is ungrammatical. This is the problem - in some languages, there is neither a definite nor indefinite article, but English count nouns require one, and so in translating you must select one.
    – nedned
    Nov 23, 2012 at 2:14

2 Answers 2


As was said in the comments, just selecting one arbitrarily and sticking to it is probably a bad idea as this could be confusing. Your best options are probably to either:

  1. Provide the necessary context so as to resolve the definiteness of what is being referred to.

  2. Use 'a/the' in the translation line. An example of this can be found in the WALS Online entry for definite articles in the example from the Cherokee language.

It probably depends on the purpose of your example. If it is to point out that the language does not possess definite or indefinite articles (as in the Cherokee examples), then the second option would be the way to go, otherwise it's up to you I guess.


If you want to show that you mean particularly this cat you can say ten/tamten kot (this/that cat). Otherwise you don't need to add any article.

This information (definite/indefinite article) is not important, exactly like in English there is no gender for any noun - just a cat/mouse/animal, not ten(kot)/ ta(mysz)/to (zwierzę) or like in German der/die/das...

  • The question is about how to reflect the translation into English, not about whether the articles are used in the source language. Aug 2, 2017 at 22:04

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