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I am wondering this sort of cross-linguistically. I know many (most?) languages don't have a word for "the", but the English language does. First part of the question is, did Middle English and Old English have this? It looks like Old english did, .

Wikipedia says:

Old English developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or Ingvaeonic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Did those languages have a word for "the"? If not, then this would sort of answer the question. Then I would know that it was invented relatively recently which would give us a ballpark time frame required for the evolution of such a language construct. If they had a word for "the" all the way back then though, we might not be closer to an answer of how long it takes for this sort of concept to be introduced.

Do we have any other cases of words like "the" which we saw were introduced in a language, language variant, or new language evolving from some old one?

Basically I want to see how long it might take to introduce such a subtle concept as "the" (or "a", or probably some others). Or perhaps, knowing the reverse would be helpful too. Are there languages we have examples of for which they dropped the terms for "the" and the like, and the future/current language no longer had them?

I recently read that Latin didn't have articles, but did Italian/Spanish evolve from Latin to have articles? That would be interesting. It also says Sanskrit doesn't have articles, but other modern Indian languages do. That might be an interesting candidate to study, how it evolved. That and all Slavic languages (like Russian), except Bulgarian and Macedonian, don't have articles. Might be another candidate?

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    What do you mean by "filler words" here? That term normally refers to things like "umm" and "ah", not "the".
    – Draconis
    Sep 11 at 5:22
  • I guess I mean articles. Sep 11 at 5:26
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    Are you asking about compulsory marking of definiteness as a grammatical feature, or about morphologically distinct articles? Do inflections and affixes count?
    – Nardog
    Sep 11 at 10:03
  • Why so many downvotes... Sep 11 at 16:26
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    Languages without articles will simply use some other means to express the same thing, ie definiteness. I strongly suspect that all languages would be able to express definiteness. Sep 11 at 23:48
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At least three ancient Semitic languages (Sabaic, Arabic, Old Akkadian) use suffixes like -n and -m to mark indefinite nouns, though the details differ from language to language. In the case of Akkadian this takes us back to about 2500 BC. Old Aramaic distinguishes a determinate state (suffix -ā) and an “absolute” (indefinite) state with suffix zero. Hebrew also has a definite article, though the Biblical texts are not clearly dateable.

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  • I don't see why this is accepted. It explains little, it is biased by the availability of written records and doesn't take determinatives into account, which aren't definite but similar enough, as OP hasn't defined definite articles to the exclusion of anything else. Also, the relative pronouns of Arabic relate to the definite article al, and that resemblance makes it more like , which is related to the relative pronouns such, OE þe, Gothic saei and further to who, this, etc. (cp. *kwís, enclitic *-so), unless -n ~ m was after all so relative to מִי‎ (mi "who?"). Such cases
    – vectory
    Sep 17 at 8:36
  • @vectory. "Determinatives"?
    – fdb
    Sep 17 at 10:49
  • or noun classes in other languages
    – vectory
    Sep 17 at 11:31
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The question as stated in the title is unanswerable, and the assumptions you're making in the body of the question are incorrect.

Language has been around for tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of years, but it's only in the last few thousand years that any languages have been written down. Therefore, if it turns out that Akkadian (for example) is the oldest attested language to use definiteness marking, that would still not answer the question in the title. Presumably if you could take a time machine to 30,000 years before the present you would find that, just as today, there were languages around that marked definiteness and others that didn't; at least there's no reason not to think so.

You seem to be assuming that languages evolve over time towards greater subtlety or sophistication, and that definiteness marking is a "subtle" feature which might take a long time to appear. There's no basis for these assumptions. In the few thousand years in which we do have attested written languages there's no sign of any such general increase in complexity or subtlety (however defined) over time. A priori it's hard to see how there could be any such trend without a corresponding increase in human innate intelligence, for which again there's no evidence.

You say about the specific case of English:

Did those [Germanic] languages have a word for "the"? If not, then this would sort of answer the question. Then I would know that it was invented relatively recently which would give us a ballpark time frame required for the evolution of such a language construct.

It wouldn't answer the question: it would only tell you that in English, definiteness marking happens to have developed at some specific point in time. But that's just a fact about English, which has no bearing on the history of definiteness marking in any other language.

In short: some languages mark definiteness, others don't; languages can gain or lose definiteness marking for reasons to do with their own specific histories rather than any general principles; and as far as we know this has always been the case.

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  • You are making too many assumptions about what I am thinking about, and you have never bothered to ask me what I am considering or how I came to my working assumptions. Kind of rude to just shoot them down so quick. Sep 13 at 15:01
  • I'm not sure why the answers have to be dismissive. The question is imprecise but it offers a bit more than in the title. I think it would be useful to take English as common ground because likeness (viz. *'like "the") as a measure of similarity constrains it sufficiently, for a start. To branch out from there, working a way backwards and sideways into related languages should give a lot to say before approaching a typologic comparison with unrelated or potentially unknown languages. If the "when" is unanswerable still there remains the "how". Is that also unanswerable, even for English?
    – vectory
    Sep 17 at 8:02
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A terminus ante quem would be Ancient Greek, first recorded in the eighth century BCE, which has definite articles. (Mycenaean, recorded several centuries earlier, does not.) Classical Hebrew likewise has definite articles, but I'm not sure how early they're attested.

All the earlier-written languages I can think of (Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Mycenaean, etc) lack articles. This doesn't necessarily mean that they hadn't developed yet—many languages do just fine without articles, while others have them at one point, but lose them over time. But if you're wondering about the earliest attestation of articles, Greek and Hebrew are good contenders.

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  • Which languages had them but then lost them over time? Sep 11 at 6:02
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    @LancePollard I can't think of any off the top of my head, but Greenberg discusses examples when talking about the evolution of gender markers. Apparently several languages he studied in Africa and the Americas have turned their former articles into noun or gender markers.
    – Draconis
    Sep 11 at 6:09
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    Epic Greek (as in the Homeric poems) does not have articles.
    – fdb
    Sep 11 at 8:22
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    Aramaic lost and then regained definiteness marking. The emphatic state, which marked definiteness, became a general noun marker.
    – Keelan
    Sep 11 at 12:34
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    @Keelan. That is true of Eastern Aramaic only,
    – fdb
    Sep 12 at 9:44
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This is the obligatory reference to the relevant WALS chapters. It challenges the presupposition of the question, namely that most languages don't have articles. In the WALS sample, the majority of the languages have some definite articles and the same holds for indefinite articles. It can be noted that WALS uses a wide definition of "article", they do not demand that the definite article is different from the demonstrative pronoun (demanding that, the fraction of languages with definite articles is slightly above 50% in the sample) and they do not demand that the indefinite article is different form the numeral "one" (demanding that, the fraction of languages with indefinite article is below 50%).

Finally, here'a a map of the articles with indefinite and definite combined

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  • this is the most correct answer given so(!) far, for once, but only because it refers to "one"
    – vectory
    Sep 13 at 8:37

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