While some languages have definite/indefinite articles (a/an/the in English, le/la/les and un/une/des in French), others don't (Russian, Latin). In this connection I have a few questions:

  1. Chicken or egg: are the articles acquired or lost? Do proto-languages (proto-Indo-European for my examples) have articles or do they vary as well in this respect?

  2. Is absence of articles in a complimentary distribution with other grammatical features (e.g., the noun inflection), so that the definiteness can be still expressed?

Anecdotal evidence is suggested by Latin vs. Romance languages: the latter acquired the articles but lost the inflections present in Latin. So one could hypothesize that the inflected languages communicate the definiteness via their flexible word order. (This is just a hypothesis that I borrowed from some of the answers to this question. I already see how it could be contradicted, e.g., by the example of German, which is both inflected and has articles).


Question 1

As other answers have said, the different articles found in Indo-European languages developed over time. No articles are reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European. I don't know of any European language, or in fact any language in any family, that used to have articles and then lost them.

The Indo-European language that developed a definite article the earliest is Greek. Since Greek lacks an ablative case, Marc's formulation of "(definite) articles show up when the number of cases drop below 5 (not counting vocative)" is I think true as an observation, but I'm not sure it means anything in terms of causation. I can't see why the difference between 5 and 4 cases would be significant here; there are languages such as Hungarian that have articles and more than 5 cases (although Hungarian cases are arguably not entirely comparable to Indo-European cases).

Definite articles developed later in Romance and Germanic languages. The Slavic language Macedonian has also developed a (suffixal) definite article, and like the Romance languages, it has lost case inflection.

Ancient Greek did not have an indefinite article; indefinite articles developed later. All singular indefinite articles that I am familiar are derived from the numeral one.

Question 2

While it’s true that word order in languages without articles is sometimes related to whether a noun phrase is definite or indefinite, I don’t think that is systematic or common enough in article-less languages to be seen as a general “compensatory” factor for the lack of definite and indefinite articles. The thing is, the distinction between the definite and indefinite article is often predictable just from the context: either the identity of the following word, of the head noun, or of the construction in which it is used, or the overall semantics of the sentence—and even when not, it is often not essential information. So even though a fair number of languages have developed highly grammaticalized means of expressing definiteness or indefiniteness, I think it’s probably not right to approach the matter with the assumption that languages need to have some way of marking (in)definiteness that is as pervasive as (in)definite articles in languages that have them.

If there is actually a negative correlation between case marking and articles (which I am not sure is true), I would guess that it is more likely because both function to mark the boundaries and categories of words or phrases. The presence of an article, whether definite or indefinite, or of a case ending, whether nominative, accusative, etc., can help a listener identify the edges of noun phrases or of nouns.

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    @Vadim: "Complexity" is difficult to define, but I think it's clear that a language with multiple articles like English is more complex than something that we could call "English₂" that had the same lexicon and grammar as English but used zero in place of the or a. (The preceding clause given in English₂: "I think it's clear that language with multiple articles like English is more complex than something that we could call "English₂" that had same lexicon and grammar as English but no articles"). – brass tacks Mar 4 at 13:20
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    That is, all else equal, having a contrast between different articles adds complexity to the grammar of a language. But when you're comparing two natural languages, all else is never equal. I might be belaboring an obvious point, but I just wanted to make sure I'm clear to avoid giving the misimpression that "languages with articles are in general more complex as a whole than languages without articles": I hope you can see that that doesn't follow from what I said in the preceding comment. Articles often contain redundant information; that is true of many, perhaps most grammatical markers – brass tacks Mar 4 at 13:23
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    (plural markers are another example of something that many languages have even though the information they encode is frequently redundant) – brass tacks Mar 4 at 13:23
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    @Vadim: There are other people who seem to find that idea appealing too, but as far as I know there isn't a huge amount of evidence for it, and some people have argued to the contrary that languages don't in fact all have equally complex grammatical systems. – brass tacks Mar 4 at 13:39
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    @Vadim Consider that Russian speaking English and omitting articles is understandable, he just sounds odd. – Barmar Mar 4 at 19:52

1) Articles are acquired. Proto-Indo-European didn’t have articles and many Indo-European languages don’t have them until now.

2) This is more complicated. As languages lose case inflection while retaining free word order, they need other means to express grammatical functions. For example, German and some peripheral dialects of Macedonian have both articles and cases but this is not redundant as there’s a high degree of case syncretism in nouns. There are also languages with free word order and without case and articles but these are rather an exception.

Overall, languages need definiteness (and specificity) to express information structure. This can be done by free word order or articles (or morphology but this is very rare). The general pathway is acquiring more rigid word order which is compensated by starting to use articles.

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  • I am not quite sure of what you mean by morphology as opposed to inflection. The articles that attach to nouns? – Vadim Mar 4 at 9:38
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    Hungarian and Classical Arabic have cases and rather free word order, but still have articles. Romanian has articles and cases which are usually expressed by the forms of the articles. – Yellow Sky Mar 4 at 9:51
  • @Vadim What I meant is that in some languages information structure is signalled by morphology but this isn’t germane to the present discussion. – Atamiri Mar 4 at 10:47
  • I've never heard of a language with free word order but no case marking (though I can imagine the possibility). Can you provide examples of such languages? – Gaston Ümlaut Mar 4 at 21:30
  • @GastonÜmlaut Macedonian, for example. A more exotic example would be Abkhaz. – Atamiri Mar 4 at 22:04

As Atamiri said (in Indo-European languages at least), articles are acquired. From what I remember (my degree is from last century), (definite) articles show up when the number of cases drop below 5 (not counting vocative). Not sure of the reference, but I think it is discussed in Gustave Guillaume's Le problème de l'article et sa solution dans la langue française.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a parallel with the development of auxiliary verbs (but that's another story).

(Also, the egg came first, laid by a proto-chicken.)

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  • Some say that it was a decisive mutation in the egg-cell of the proto-chicken that created a chicken. In reality, the boundaries between species are rather blurred, so there is no one exact moment when the proto-chicken became a chicken. – Vadim Mar 5 at 8:18
  • @Vadim: indeed. – Marc Mar 5 at 14:33

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