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?
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.
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.
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:
(the street, the house)
Naples and other Southern regions have:
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-pollination much later with the Italian lingua franca of the Mediterranean (which e.g. adopted Arabic habit of doubling words such as poco poco).
As I understand it, development of articles is a consequence of a sociocultural and political comprehension of the self and others outside of a social collective with greater confidence about declaring subjects in their own right as an objective entity. Slavic languages which develop a separation later than others have other collectivist cultural parallels - where the lack an equivalent to weirdguild or Roman law shows a collectivist approach to conflict management.
In essence, what I'm trying to say is that Greece had 1200 city states. Differentiation and segregation of identity would naturally place pressure on the emergence on an article that emphasizes that separation and the conception of self as agent within the polis and further puts pressure on development of more precise identification of ownership of objects.
Roman state, on the other hand, emphasizes Pax Romana, a universalist symbolism that is among other things reflected in the universal religion they develop - Christianity.
For 700+ years they had republican symbolism and imagery, where individualism took a secondary role to a national conception of self and personal property.
In the Germanic chieftain societies, you had tribalism and weird guild, which provides for personal property, nuclear family with stiff penalties for infidelity and this creates space for conception if self as separate from the tribe and what is collective or social. The emergence of self, then, as an independent agent in frequent competition with those of the same social group for status and power and women would lend itself to an innumeration of things via articles that would specify among other things what object belongs to whom.
As Italy becomes balkanized into many city states, you have the same sort of diversification of identities and emergence of a conception of self apart from a strong central government domination and so I see the development of articles as a consequence of 1. Decline in authoritarian pressure to conform to social expectations and definitions that place the collective welfare ahead of individual, and 2. Growth of wealth and concepts of personal property that require such specificity for the preservation of personal ownership rights.
The PIE theory would seem to correlate this - initially, no articles, as the conception is more collectivist - all the way to the present - more individualist, and the Slavic societies which retain a more collectivist orientation still being without articles would seem to suggest that also.
Looking at difference in using nouns(simplification) in Italian vs Latin and looking at even pre French/Norman english which underwent a massive simplification due to contact with similar but not similar enough to understand Danish, it seems like the languages used in a relatively larger area with many native speakers of similar and also totally different languages underwent certain simplification over time. The language lost certain(more complicated) structures which had to be replaced with something else. Classical latin was already old in 1st century and differed from vulgar latin. Even now in communication between parties who do not speak(or speak well) the same language the words like "this" and "that" (with their gender variations if they exist in that language) are used wildly, sometimes with some nonverbal pointing, which leads to both parties to use the language incorrectly. In a world without widespread literacy and clearly set language this might lead to outcome like that. In current age there still exist dialects which can slightly differ even if the places are in relative proximity with some differences notable even within area of 20 to 50 km with much bigger differences if distance increases but with widespread literacy and an official language with set rules in place the need for change or simplification is massively reduced. This is just my opinion. I am not really sure how antient greek fits into this, it is bit of an outlier but it is also a much older language.
The previous reply pointing to some "comprehension of the self" and "individualism" seems like a wild stretch. Major languages which did not lose their original slightly complicated grammatical structure lack this feature.