The Scandinavian languages have a suffix definite article which is pretty straightforwardly tacked on to to the ends of nouns: -en, -et.

But in languages of the Balkan Sprachbund, Romanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Albanian it is not so simple.

For some genders in some languages, depending on other attributes of the noun form such as number, it may be a simple tacked on suffix like Romanian masculine singular -ul.

But in most cases it's not simply tacked on at all but just one of several factors that contribute to deciding which inflectional ending to take, such as gender, number, and case.

Typically the result might be that the indefinite vs definite form differ by having different final vowels such as Albanian Tiranë -> Tirana, but there can even be internal changes such as Albanian Shkodër -> Shkodra.

Yet in all these languages it's widespread and seemingly standard to still refer to all of these languages as having a definite article suffix rather than talk about "definiteness" as a noun property. Why?

  • 1
    Maybe it's an inflectional suffix?
    – dainichi
    Commented May 17, 2012 at 1:26
  • 1
    Shkodër -> Shkodëra -> Shkodra (the ë is silent so no need to write it)
    – Marin
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 17:27

6 Answers 6


I don't see why a definite article suffix and "definiteness" as a noun property contradict each other. The "definiteness" is achieved by attaching a suffix morpheme to the indefinite version.

And just to comment on your comparison between Scandinavian languages and e.g. Albanian, I don't see much difference. I know nothing about Albanian, but from your examples, I would assume that '-a' is the definite article suffix, and 'Tiranë -> Tirana' and 'Shkodër -> Shkodra' are results of vowel elision in the last syllable of the stem.

The exact same phonomenon happens in e.g. Danish.

måne -> månen 'moon -> the moon'
morgen -> morgnen 'morning -> the morning'
  • Yes. Romanian feminine works almost the same: the article is -a (Lat. acc. illam→ Rom. -euă → -eau → -a), and if the word ends with that -ă (which generally corresponds to Albanian -ë) then -ăa → -a. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 6:17
  • That's only one of the eight Romanian endings for definite noun forms and only one of the fifteen Albanian endings for the definite noun forms. The Albanian morphology Wikipedia page currently does talk about noun definiteness rather than definite suffix. Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 5:57
  • note than in Scandinavian the definite article cannot simply be seen as a suffix on the indefinite noun, but we must instead view it as part of the inflection, cf Norwegian katter "cats" ~ kattene "the cats" where there is no evidence of the r in the indefinite plural in the definite plural
    – Tristan
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 9:44
  • Again, I think the premise of the question, that suffixes and inflections are mutually exclusive, is wrong. Suffixes are morphemes that attach at the end. Inflections are changes in words to mark a grammatical function. The "-a" in "Tirana" and "Shkodra" satisfies both of these. About "kattene", we can discuss whether "-ene" is one morpheme or two, but that seems irrelevant to me. Btw, in Danish, it's "katte -> kattene", so the morphemes are a bit more intact, at least in this case.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 9:04

There's actually been a lot of work on this kind of issue in morphosyntax. I'm not sure exactly what the best starting point is, but you might want to take a look at this Dost/Gribanova WCCFL paper on Bulgarian, since you mention that as one of the languages of interest, and this paper directly addresses the issue of whether definiteness is an "affix". I know there's been some subsequent research on definiteness in several of those languages, but I'm just not as familiar with it, so can't point to it as easily. (But check on google scholar what papers cite this, and cite the Embick & Noyer paper.)


The lines are blurry, but there are some good reasons to see these as distinct suffixes and not inflections:


Some of the suffixes evolved from previously separate words like determiners and pronouns like ille and . In fact, in Romanian the suffix itself is declined and can also occur separately for emphasis.


In Macedonian, Bulgarian and Balkan Romance, the suffix is or can be appended not to the noun but to the adjective if there is one, again revealing its origin as a separate word.


These languages have number and have or had noun case, so there as a separate established notion of what qualifies as noun inflection.


Unlike with declensions, there really are no internal nor unpredictable changes to the words, occasionally the final portion changes due to elision but that happens in languages where articles precede the noun too.

Western tradition

Definite articles in Western and Central European, Mediterranean and Semitic languages were the obvious analogy, both to the linguists who first worked on this and to the educated speakers of these Balkan languages.

(The neighbouring West Slavic, East Slavic, Finnic, Iranic and now Turkic languages have no definite articles.)

All that said, it is common to simply avoid the question by referring to the definite forms of a noun for these languages. (That's how Wiktonary declension tables refer to them for Albanian, Armenian and Bulgarian. For Romanian they say definite articulation.)

Although no writing system is phonetic, that is often a local ideal, so where -ë + -a or -ă + -a is pronounced as -a would be, the tendency is to write -a.

  • 1
    It's perhaps worth pointing out concretely that there is a dialect continuum from Macedonian and Bulgarian to Serbo-Croatian and back to Old Church Slavonic, which like all other Slavic languages have case declensions but no articles. So it is very obvious to us that these are appended suffixes, because very similar languages exist without them. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:53

As for even more recent work, Harizanov and Gribanova have the following paper: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7473d2rt

It directly addresses those properties of DEF that make it seem both like an "affix" and not like one.

The role of morphological and phonological factors in Bulgarian allomorph selection, with Vera Gribanova. 2011. In Morphology at Santa Cruz: Papers in Honor of Jorge Hankamer, (eds) N. LaCara, A. Thompson, and M. A. Tucker. Santa Cruz, CA: Linguistics Research Center.


In Bulgaria, the definite article did start as a separate word, which loosely translates to "this one". or "he", "she" and "it" for the 3 genders, so Bulgarian ended with different suffixes for each gender.

As example:

котка+тя = котката [kotka + tya = kotkata] {cat+she} FEMALE

куче+то = кучето [kuche + to = kucheto] {dog+it} NEUTRAL

елен+той = еленът [elen + toy = elen't] {deer+he} MALE

кон+той = конят [kon + toy = konyat] {horse+he} MALE

(It seems the ending for male words had been abbreviated to simply the letter T with a vowel between it and the last consonant of the word).

The origin of the article as a separate word is also clearly visible, as stated above, in the way the suffix is added to the adjective before the noun while leaving the noun in its indefinite form, but carrying the gender of the noun. In case of multiple adjectives, only the first one gets the suffix:

голяма+тя бяла котка = голямата бяла котка [goljama+tya byala kotka = golyamata byala kotka] {the big white cat}

In that way Bulgarian is similar to English, German, Spanish, and other European languages where only the first of a series of adjectives is "affected" by the definite article.

  • I believe it's the usual way for inflectional endings to develop from separate words. Perhaps most inflections are much older though whereas this was an observed change in the history of the language. Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 4:57

I haven't an authoritative answer, but it seems to me that this is mostly because Indo-Europeanists are not used to thinking about "definiteness" as opposed to a "definite article".

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