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Some languages don’t require articles. They presumably must have appeared at some point in the history of language.

Why would a linguistic feature like “the” be mandatory rather than optional? If it adds expressivity but communication can be fine without it, why does language force only some people to always specify a certain category of linguistic meaning?

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  • Does this answer your question? linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/811/482
    – jlawler
    May 10 at 19:16
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    The question is much more general than the linked question, and only marginally related. The presupposition seems to be that the nature of a languages grammar is strictly determined by functional considerations, and that nothing in language is conventional. I think that is the opposite of the truth. Why would any grammatical feature be optional rather than mandatory? This isn't a linguistic question, it's a question of philosophy of psychology.
    – user6726
    May 10 at 19:36

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In the comments, jlawler linked an excellent discussion of definiteness. The short version is that all languages do something to mark information status, and a definite article is one way of accomplishing this.

So I'm going to focus on another part of your question: "If it adds expressivity but communication can be fine without it, why does language force only some people to always specify a certain category of linguistic meaning?"

The answer is, it adds another level of redundancy. Redundancy is crucial for spoken language, because speech is a very noisy channel and it's a certainty rather than a possibility that some information will get lost. So languages seem to optimize for a certain level of redundancy that conveys the optimal amount of information per unit of time—too much redundancy and you'll waste time saying too much, too little redundancy and you'll waste time going back and re-expressing things that got lost.

Mandatory marking helps with this in a few different ways. It can duplicate information found somewhere else: for example, English indefinite articles have redundant number marking ("a" always has to be singular), and German definite articles have redundant case* and gender marking. This helps if some information about the noun is lost; if you lost a syllable from the middle of a German noun, for example, the article tells you its gender and lets you narrow down the possibilities.

Also, marking tends to be mandatory for specific categories of word. In English, for example, articles and plural marking only go on nouns. This gives a different sort of redundancy; if some information about a word is lost, you can still figure out what category of word it was. This can also help with some types of ambiguity: you can tell the difference between "a record" (noun) and "recorded" (verb) immediately because of the types of marking they show.

But, what exactly is mandatory to mark can vary a lot. Languages generally benefit, in terms of redundancy, from having some trait marked on some category. But different languages can, and do, choose very different traits on very different categories to mark. If one benefit of mandatory tense marking is to show which words are verbs, mandatory evidentiality marking would also serve that purpose just as well. Different languages have found different solutions to the optimization problem and reflect it in different ways.

* Even as case marking on nouns fades, it's still often conveyed by e.g. word order and choice of prepositions. The article isn't the only way to know which noun in a German sentence is the subject, for example.

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  • Still, how did that evolve? We went from random grunts to modern language. At what point did grammar transition from expressing needed basic relations like that a noun was either the subject or the object of a verb… to being “required” (via an automatic sense of correct form) to follow some kind of pattern if only out of convention (even when the message could have been understood from context without it)… I think the evolution of grammar can help us understand very much about modern syntax. Is much known on this topic? Thanks May 11 at 9:54
  • I can imagine some kind of reinforcement mechanism meant that first a structural convention was created out of need but then everybody started following the convention universally, regardless of context. May 11 at 9:55
  • But why would language have this “sticky” property, i.e. people naturally tend to adopt a convention and it gets reinforced to the level of a law - why can’t language remain stagnant and ungrammatical, or grammar be very ad hoc and temporary and conventions come and go every generation? My only guess is evolution through an ad hoc optimization found it was more adaptive to survival to develop a highly regular and structured communication system - evolution tends towards order and optimization naturally. Therefore the brain itself shifted in this direction. Just my current consideration. May 11 at 9:58
  • Culture has the "sticky" property. Language is part of culture (if a culture is a body, the language is the bloodstream) and evolution is basically a matter of making everything work as long as it can, and then gracefully failing. Look at English inflections; they're irrelevant, but they're still around, and many English teachers make much of them. Because they're so simple; syntax, on the other hand, is ignored.
    – jlawler
    May 11 at 14:01

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