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Classical Latin, as I understand things, barely has a definite article at all: ille is the nearest equivalent, and even this word is closer to English that than the. But Spanish, French and Italian are chock full of el/le/il/etc. What on earth could cause a language, even over the course of centuries, to undergo such a drastic structural change?

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    The presence or definite and indefinite article is, together with other characteristics, a trait of the Standard Average European sprachbund, which encompasses all the Romance languages but not Latin, but also Germanic languages like English, and other languages (some slavic, hungarian, etc.). It seems to be the result of heavy language contacts during the migration period, at the end of the 1st millenium. – Frédéric Grosshans Oct 14 at 13:33
  • @FrédéricGrosshans. The Sprachbund hypothesis does not explain why in (for example) Romanian the article appears not as a prefix, but as a suffix. – fdb Oct 14 at 13:51
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    @fdb : This is weel explained by Romanian being part of the Balkanic Sprachbund, a stronger Sprachbund within Standard average European – Frédéric Grosshans Oct 14 at 13:57
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    Consider that contemporary colloquial Slovak is well on the way of transforming demonstrative pronouns into definite articles - not a drastic change at all (of course, this being modern times, the trend is supressed by widespread literacy, education and the pressure to use the "proper" language). – Radovan Garabík Oct 15 at 14:39
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    The rise of articles seems to be one result of the loss of inflectional affixes. When morphology fails, syntax enters, and it brings with it lots of little particles (prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs, etc.) that do for syntax what paradigms did for morphology. Except syntax isn't paradigmatic; it's much messier and leaves artifacts all over the place. – jlawler Oct 16 at 20:37
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Languages evolve in many ways! Proto-Indo-European had no articles at all, but they evolved independently in several different branches: you can still see the similarity between English "the" and "that", which is almost exactly the same as how ille turned into el/il/etc.

It looks a bit more likely, too, when you realize this evolution only had to happen once in Romance. This semantic bleaching started in Vulgar Latin around the first few centuries CE; it was well-established by the time Vulgar Latin started splitting into the ancestors of French and Spanish and Italian and the like. So they all inherited it from the same source, rather than all having to develop it independently.

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    'Proto-Indo-European had no articles at all'. That's fascinating. Forgive my scepticism, but how can we know that a reconstructed language lacked certain features? I have a rough idea how we might reconstruct this or that word, but reconstructing the absence of a word is almost a contradiction in terms. Please convince me otherwise! – Tom Hosker Oct 14 at 19:29
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    @TomHosker Basically, all the oldest IE languages that have articles seem to have developed them from different sources. If PIE had articles, we'd expect its descendants to all have articles from the same source—but that's not what we see. Instead, Romance made them one way, Germanic made them another way, Hellenic made them a different way, etc. – Draconis Oct 14 at 19:32
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    @Malvolio Some part of it may be areal/Sprachbund features, especially in modern times. But the Germanic and Hellenic ones were definitely independent; the Romance one might have influenced Germanic, but was etymologically separate. – Draconis Oct 15 at 3:41
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    @Imago "Why" is always hard to answer in linguistics, but "what purpose do articles serve" would make a good question of its own—the explanation is too long to fit in a single comment. – Draconis Oct 15 at 18:22
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    @Draconis, there already seems to be a discussion about that: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/29059/… – Imago Oct 15 at 18:23
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such a drastic structural change

The change is not drastic at all! It is a simple case of semantic bleaching (this is where the meaning of a word gets weaker. So you can kind of see how the is a "weaker version" of that).

Also it's not a structural change, since wherever ille and all its forms may be used, it's the same whether it was early on and meant that or it was later on and it meant the.

This had already happened in Late Latin. By that time, ille was pretty close to meaning the.

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    I suppose "drastic" is in the eye of the beholder, but it feels like a big change to me! Imagine if you put a copy of Don Quixote in front of Virgil or Propertius. Most of the vocabulary, and pretty much all of the grammatical structure, he could work out very quickly. But this strange word el, which occurs more frequently than any one word in Latin, would keep him guessing for a fair while, no? – Tom Hosker Oct 14 at 18:36
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    @TomHosker Honestly, I think Vergil would probably recognize el — he'd just recognize it as a stigmatized form that you would never use in proper literature and poetry! (I'm not sure quite when ille started getting bleached in Vulgar Latin, but it's attested within the first few centuries, so it was probably starting to happen by his time.) – Draconis Oct 14 at 19:10
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    I don't know how much Greek Virgil (in particular) knew, but some educated Romans did know Greek, and Greek had articles in classical times. – Colin Fine Oct 14 at 20:24
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    @ColinFine Also a good point. Vergil loved the Homeric epics, so presumably he knew some Greek. – Draconis Oct 14 at 20:35
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    I would think the lack of case endings and semi-fixed word order might prove a challenge for someone like Virgil. – eques Oct 17 at 14:21
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I agree with the earlier answers, but they essentially state that it was a possible occurrence and how it happened (ille, illa), not why it happened.

Could it be (I am only venturing a hypothesis), that there was an influence of another language, typically Greek?

While "standard" Italian has these forms:

il vicolo

la casa

(the street, the house)

Naples and other Southern regions have:

o vico

a casa

which is suprisingly close to Ancient Greek "hos" and "he" (with the Dorian variation of the eta into alpha). Furthermore, those articles "o" an "a" have a glottal attack that may resemble the Ancient Greek prononciation.

Could it be that, e.g. native Greek speakers, e.g. from the military or tradespeople, could have borrowed this article from Greek when speaking whatever Latin pidgin they were speaking?

After all, we saw this phenomenon of cross-pollinization much later with the Italian lingua franca of the Mediterranean (which e.g. adopted Arabic habit of doubling words such as poco poco).

  • Not "borrowed" exactly; that word has a more specific meaning which is slightly different. But I like your description, "cross-pollinization". That fits well. This kind of thing happens over and over with neighbouring languages. It's normally called a Sprachbund feature. – Wilson Oct 16 at 10:02
  • Providing the hypothesis was verified, would that not be a borrowing, in the linguistic sense? We would have a couple of words that traveled, with minor alteration (and without barely a calque) from a language to another. In the extreme, it could be that illus and illa were calques of Greek. – fralau Oct 16 at 10:26
  • Interesting point. I don't know exactly. But you have a question there, if you pots it as one I'm sure it will get an answer. – Wilson Oct 16 at 10:28
  • I agree: I answered a question with another question... – fralau Oct 16 at 10:29
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    I would be skeptical if that's what happened for a number of reasons. Ille was reduced to o/a also in Portuguese (which would have far less Greek influence; l being a weaker sound). Ancient/Koine Greek only had the vowel w/ glottal sound in the nominative masculine and feminine, the remaining forms all start with /t/; plus Ancient/Koine Greek used the article more extensively than we see in Romance languages (repeated for articles or prepositional phrases in some constructs) – eques Oct 17 at 14:21

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