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I read that PIE, Latin, old English, and even old German did not use articles, yet current English, German and Romance languages all use articles.

Is it true that articles developed in all these languages independently from the word for "one"? What is the reason for their development? Were they useful in any way, such as helping pronunciation?

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    I believe there were two Proto-Indo-European roots meaning "one". The root *sem- led to words like Greek heis "one", and words like similar and simple through Latin. The root(s) *oi-no- led to one through Proto-Germanic, and to the Romance articles and unique through Latin unus. Neither Latin nor Greek had an indefinite article; they must have developed later, and at least partly independently (cross-pollination is always a possibility). – Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 21:56
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    Definite articles came from various demonstrative stems, which only makes sense, if you consider that definite articles are really just a special kind of demonstrative pronouns. Demonstrative pronouns being linked to deixis, it seems probably that deictic use is the ultimate source of definite articles. Proto-Indo-European *to- and *so- were demonstrative/deictic stems; *so- led to the Greek definite article ho, but also through Proto-Germanic to English he/her/him/here, and through Proto-Italic to Latin hic "this, he" etc. – Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 22:01
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    Some comparative PIE numerals here. European IE languages with indefinite articles usually proceed from one; definite articles in Romance come from Latin ille, and in German come from various forms of PIE *to (which weakens to an initial TH by Grimm's Law). – jlawler Apr 21 '13 at 22:12
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    @jlawler: Nice comparison; the only thing is that heis doesn't appear to be a reflex of *oino-, but rather of *sem-. – Cerberus Apr 21 '13 at 22:32
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    Bulgarian/Macedonian, alone among Slavonic languages, have acquired a definite article (again from *to-) and, like their very distantly related neighbours Romanian and Albanian, their article is suffixed to the word. – Colin Fine Apr 29 '13 at 17:38
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Indefinite articles developed from numerals, and the definite articles developed from demonstratives. This is a very well known process called grammaticalization.

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  • Grammaticalization indeed seems to be the answer. Is it possible that articles appear to take over the grammatical function of inflections as they are disappearing? As for the reason why inflections tend to disappear over time, is it because they are quite complex and people to tend to simplify, especially when learning a language as a second language? – Martin Konicek May 9 '13 at 12:35
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    1) Yes, inflections can disappear but the grammatical function remains in the articles. This is what's happening right now in German, where you almost only have declension on the articles and adjectives, and only few nouns have declensions besides genitive and plural dative. 2) I don't think so, it is also a product of phonetic erosion. Words tend to lose their ending, and if the grammatical functions is already expressed by the article, then there is no need to also make it explicit on the noun, so it starts to "decay". – MGN May 12 '13 at 17:24
  • I'll accept this answer. Grammaticalization makes a lot of sense to me, although it is only a theory because there is too little historical data. This short article explains the concept very well: www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/TheGrammaticalizationCycle.pdf Thanks! – Martin Konicek May 14 '13 at 9:30
  • @MGN - similar thing happens in popular Portuguese regarding number: As casa é azul with plural inflexion only in the article, instead of standard As casas são azuis with four different inflexions marked for plural. – Luís Henrique Oct 6 '17 at 13:37
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Yes, this is true and yes, in most cases indefinite articles indeed developed from numerals, as @MGN already said.

Not only there's no evidence of articles in PIE, the lack of articles is a more common phenomena than it can be expected to be from the Standard Average European point of view. Here's an interesting quote:

The geographical distribution of articles on a worldwide basis (WALS 2005) confirms the Western European peculiarity: while languages lacking articles are common (out of 566 languages, only 188 have no definite or indefinite articles and 41 have no definite, but only indefinite articles), one area in which lack of definite article is infrequent is Western Europe.

Moreover, as it can be read in the article provided, the upcoming process of grammaticalization of articles can be observed nowadays in some Slavic languages.

Even more, there are some hypothesis that definite articles in some cases underwent further evolution and transformed to some other grammar units. For example, Joseph Greenberg claimed that this is how some languages acquired gender markers.

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Articles in Macedonian are like demonstrative adjectives attached to the nouns, so there are 3 degrees of ''proximity'' observed.

My language (Croatian) does not have articles, but it has a concept of definite and indefinite adjectives:

dobar konj = a good horse

dobri konj = the good horse

predicative: konj je dobar = a/the horse is good

with numbers, you use definite adjective:

jedan dobri konj = one good horse

neki dobri konj = a/some good horse

because by putting an identifier (jedan=one, neki=some, a), you are making it more definite.

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  • I think Bulgarian has this same property in its articles. – hippietrail May 5 '13 at 22:53
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    German has a functionally similar distinction in its adjectival declension, but there they are used with definite and indefinite articles. – Colin Fine May 6 '13 at 11:24
  • Thanks! I didn't know about the distinction of dobar / dobri in Croatian. Czech doesn't have that. Can you please provide an example of the 3 degrees of proximity in Macedonian? – Martin Konicek May 9 '13 at 12:24
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    @MartinKonicek Here are the examples: čovekON - the man (over there); čovekOV - this man, the man here. ČovekOT is like 'the man'. There is a Wikipedia page about macedonian articles. – Milos Apr 14 '17 at 19:21

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