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According to WALS Feature 37A: Definite Articles, 198 languages have no definite or indefinite article, and 45 have no definite article but have indefinite articles. These number excludes languages that have affixes or clitics to mark definiteness, and languages which use demonstrative words as definite articles.

According to a comment here, "all languages would have some way of expressing definitiness (it seems to be a necessary function for human communication), but there are plenty that don't have a definite article". Is this true? How is definiteness expressed in those languages?

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All languages, as far as we know, do something to mark information status. Basically this means that when you refer to an X, you have to do something to indicate the answer to questions like:

  1. Do you have a specific X in mind?
  2. If so, you think your hearer is familiar with the X you're talking about?
  3. If so, have you already been discussing that X for a while, or is it new to the conversation?
  4. If you've been discussing the X for a while, has it been the main topic of conversation?

Question #2 is more or less what we mean by "definiteness." (Though for what it's worth, English can use the definite article even when the answer to #2 is "no." For instance, in formal English you can say "The whale is a mammal" — and this doesn't mean you're talking about a specific whale with which your hearer is already familiar.)

But there are lots of other information-status-marking strategies that don't directly involve definiteness marking. For example:

  • As far as we know, all languages mark focus. Roughly speaking, focused words or phrases are ones that count as "new information." In English we use prosodic intonation to mark foci; other languages use word order (e.g. in Hungarian) or have a special function word that acts as a focus marker (e.g. in many African languages).
  • In some languages, it's required to mark the topic of a sentence (e.g. Russian, Mandarin and Japanese). This is correlated with definiteness but isn't quite the same thing: topics are likely to be definite, but they don't have to be.
  • Some languages mark obviation. (This is really common in native North American languages.) This gets a little complicated, but very roughly: if a clause in these languages has two or more third-person referents, the speaker needs to mark one as "more salient" and the others as "less salient." Definiteness tends to play a role in the decision — with definite referents tending to count as "more salient" — but there are also tendencies for e.g. people to be "more salient" than animals and possessors to be "more salient" than their possessions, so it's not a straight-up definiteness-marking system.
  • Some languages mark telicity (e.g. Finnish). A telic event is one that is complete; an atelic event is one that isn't complete. So for instance, "I built-ATELIC the model plane" might mean "I worked on the model plane (but didn't finish)." This has some functional overlap with definiteness marking: consider the difference between "I ate some cake" (atelic, indefinite) and "I ate the cake" (telic, definite).
  • Some languages mark specificity (e.g. Spanish). Consider the English sentence "I'm looking for a friend." On one reading it means "I just want someone to be my friend" (nonspecific), on another it means "I've got a particular friend I want to talk to, and I'm trying to find him" (specific). In Spanish those two senses are distinguished: estoy buscando un amigo for the nonspecific reading, estoy buscando a un amigo for the specific one.
  • Some languages have switch-reference systems. (This is huge in New Guinea, and also in Amazonia.) The details vary, but basically you mark whether a clause has the same subject or a different subject than the clause that went before. This has some functional overlap with information status marking, because it tends to highlight newly introduced referents.
  • A few languages mark definiteness on the verb rather than on noun phrases. Hungarian, for instance, has a special verb form used when the direct object is definite. (Hungarian also has definite and indefinite articles, so this is a case of redundant marking of the same feature. I don't know whether any language uses verb marking as its only strategy to indicate definiteness.)

And these aren't mutually exclusive. Hungarian has definite and indefinite articles for noun phrases, and topic marking, and definiteness marking on the verb. Finnish marks topic and telicity. English mostly uses definite and indefinite articles, but it does have topic-marking constructions that you can use if you want to.

And finally, in a pinch, you've always got the option of periphrasis: you can say "one guy in particular" or "a different guy" or "that guy we've been talking about" or "a guy you don't know but I'm gonna tell you about him now" or whatever.

So we've got all these different information status distinctions that a language might mark. And the interesting thing is that there's a lot of redundancy between them. If you know that a referent is nonspecific, you can infer that it's indefinite. If you know that a referent is topical and specific, you can often infer that it's definite. If you know that a referent has been the subject of the past umpteen clauses, you can infer that it's definite and probably topical.

The upshot is, a language doesn't need to mark all of the distinctions, as long as it consistently marks some of them. And this is why there can be languages like Finnish with no grammatical definiteness marking at all. Finnish does marks topic, focus and telicity, and this gives enough information to work out whether a referent is definite or indefinite. Similarly, this is why English can get away with no grammatical switch-reference: we mark focus and definiteness, and use periphrasis in a pinch ("no, not that X, the other X"), and that's enough to let us work out whether a clause has the same subject or a different subject than the one before.

  • 4
    Err, to clarify that last paragraph: It's tempting to think of the categories your own first language uses as basic -- e.g. to think "Well, switch-reference is some exotic thing that people usually don't think about, but surely everyone pays lots of attention to definiteness!" But it's good to keep in mind that some people feel the opposite way: that a speaker of an Amazonian language who's learning Portuguese as an adult is likely to be confused by the lack of switch-reference, and to feel like the definite and indefinite articles are marking some exotic and unnecessary distinction. – Leah Velleman Oct 14 '11 at 15:56
  • Is "eat cake" a better example than "eat some cake"? The latter is partitive, but doesn't seem atelic to me ("I ate some cake for 4 hours" sounds strange). What does Finnish do for atelic definite cases ("I ate from the cake"???) and telic indefinite cases ("I ate a cake")? Is it just that partitive->atelic->indefinite and accusative->telic->definite are the default interpretations? – dainichi Oct 17 '13 at 7:36
  • Very late comment but I just want to say that this is one of the best answers I've seen on any topic: a thoroughly knowledgeable, completely lucid, easily comprehensible explanation of some fairly abstract concepts. Bravo. – John Smith Aug 8 '17 at 9:08
  • Just to add, Slavic languages also have switch-reference markers (I'm not sure how many, but Russian and Croatian/Serbian surely do), mark aspect, which is similar to telicity, and mark topic by word order. But not definiteness, which is a weird category for (the?) Slavic speakers. Why the Sun, but not the dad? Why the police, but not at the school? Why not the Maria (but Portuguese has a Maria)? Etc. – user4747 Nov 14 at 9:52
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There are different means by which languages that do not have definite articles can express definiteness. It can be done by the use of demonstratives (corresponding to English 'this'/'that'), by the use of special forms of adjectives if present (e.g. 'a big dog' and 'the big dog' would be rendered by "big dog" but with different forms of the adjective 'big').

In some languages, such as Russian, the word order is in part determined by definiteness: e.g. Boy kissed girl, with the nominative marking on boy and accusative marking on girl means "The boy kissed a girl", whereas the same words with the same case markers but in the reverse order — girl kissed boy — would mean "A boy kissed the girl".

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Some distinctions that are important for conceptualization/communication are simply not marked in some languages. Your question seems to be: if a language provides no resources for definite marker, how does a speaker communicate that a given description is intended as definite as opposed to indefinite? Answer: discourse context steps in to help. For example, in English, the discourse function of an indefinite article is typically to signal that a new referent is being introduced. So, if I've already been talking about John, it would be extremely weird to refer back to him by saying Then, a guy called Mary to invite her to the dance, as it would seem now I am definitely not talking about John, rather talking about some new male individual. However, if John is salient in the discourse, it is perfectly natural to refer back to him using the definite, Then, the guy called Mary to invite her to the dance. In a language with no definite article/clitic/affix/word order difference, but yet with an indefinite article for example, at a minimum discourse demands would lead such speakers to only use the indefinite when introducing new discourse referents, and avoiding using it to refer to establish referents. In the absence, too, of the indefinite article, languages could resort to word order differences (e.g., apply focus and topicalization rules), or additional words like same, different, or use demonstratives and pronouns to indicate (non-)contrast of referents.

  • What if there is no indefinite article either? – Louis Rhys Oct 13 '11 at 5:59
  • I was worried about that question, but set it aside. I've updated the answer to reflect the question. I'm reminded of how we mark pluralities of events in English: having such an impoverished aspectual system, when we want to be specific about pluralities or singularities of events, we resort to a host of adverbs and adverbial phrases ('again and again', 'nonstop', 'frequently', 'one time only') etc. Otherwise we seem to be comfortable leaving such distinctions for context to figure out. – Alexis Wellwood Oct 13 '11 at 9:56
  • Great explanation, thanks. If you know some examples that you can cite, it would be perfect. – Louis Rhys Oct 13 '11 at 10:14
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Sometimes it's part of the inflection as in Albanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Romanian. It's true that it is often called a suffix in those languages but in truth it blends with the other inflectional factors such as number and case which makes them different to Scandinavian languages which do use a straightforward suffix.

  • Albanian "girl": -def vajzë, +def vajza
  • Romanian "student": -def studentă, +def studenta

Some languages have special particles, prepositions, or postpositions which mark definiteness along with other attributes or functions:

  • Hebrew: "את" (at) - only for direct objects of verbs in certain conditions

There seems to be a fair bit of discussion out there regarding the topic in topic-comment languages like Japanese and Korean as carrying information about definiteness:

Most languages that don't have definite articles do seem to have determiners, demonstratives, and deictics and such like "this" and "that" that can carry some nuance of definiteness, in fact the definite articles usually derived from these.

And of course there are languages with no overt marking of definiteness at all where context is sufficient to know what's being referred to most of the time.

  • I know I've pointed this out before, but the Scandinavian definite articles also depend on number/gender/noun class and are fused with the plural markers. I fail to see how Albanian and Romanian differ fundamentally from this. Example from Danish: human/the ~/~s/the ~s = menneske/~t/~r/~ne. As you can see, the plural definite article ~ne is not a combination of the plural marker ~r and singular definite article ~t. – dainichi Oct 16 '13 at 11:37
  • Ouch. 'fail to see' is a bit defensive. It seems my knowledge of Scandinavian is not very good. In light of this it seems even more odd to ever call it an "article" or "suffix" rather than just treating "definiteness" as a category of the nominal inflection. – hippietrail Oct 16 '13 at 11:57
  • I'm sorry if my language was harsh, that was not my intention. I guess they're suffixes alright, but they're fusional. Maybe they're called articles in the tradition of other Germanic/IE languages, where definiteness tends to be expressed with articles that are at least clitics. Also, Scandinavian languages do have free-standing indefinite articles, so it seems natural to talk about a definite article as well. Also, to make matters even more complicated, Scandinavian languages also have free-standing definite articles which are used when definite nouns are modified by adjectives. – dainichi Oct 16 '13 at 12:33
  • Yes I was also thinking about the indefinite articles. I think if such a language were discovered and analysed afresh today the terminology might be different. Oh yes I completely forgot about the free-standing definite articles - that's how rusty my Scandinavian knowledge has become. It does make more sense in that regard though I would still personally talk about the articles under a heading of definiteness rather than including the fusional endings under the heading of articles, which is I think what the literature mostly does currently. – hippietrail Oct 16 '13 at 12:54
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In Croatian, there are definite and indefinite forms of adjectives:

[Konj je dobar =The/A horse is good]

dobar konj = a good horse

dobri konj = the good horse

dobar dan = a nice day

dobri dan = the nice day

Dobar dan! = Good afternoon!

Neka ti je dobar dan! = Have a nice day!

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I am currently working on some DP/NP distinctions in codeswitching of Romanian and Serbo-Croatian (Romanian is a DP language - meaning, it has both definite and indefinite artcles and Serbo-Croatian (SC) is an NP language, that lacks the definite article, therefore it lacks definiteness) SC, on the other hand, has means of expressing SPECIFICITY on adjectives - by having two different forms of adjectives (one specific, one nonspecific). It's actually very debatable whether definiteness/specificity should be treated as equal "intensifiers", or whether these are two different issues (there is proof that certain elements can be indefinite, but specific, so that might help us with making the distinction).

Also, some nouns (in both DP/NP languages) can be inherently definite, like proper names and proper nouns, etc.

  • Interesting answer. But a couple of things i don't get: (1) Why should there be an implicational relationship between a lang lacking a definite article and a lang lacking definiteness per se? - assuming that definiteness is a semantic notion, this doesn't seem obvious. (2) Can you explain the difference between specificity and definiteness, and explicate the evidence for the existence of indefinite but specific NPs? – P Elliott Nov 4 '13 at 20:07
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Mostly by word order and (in spoken language) tune. There are also languages that use topic and/or focus markers such as Quechua.

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Russian often uses word order:

По комнате прошёл мальчик. = A boy walked through the room.

Мальчик прошёл по комнате. = The boy walked through the room.

In other cases it can use a word for "one", demonstratives and possessives:

Человек думал по-другому. = The man was thinking differently.

Один человек думал по-другому. = One man was thinking differently.

Женщина прекрасна. = The woman is beautiful. (meaning all women)

Та женщина прекрасна. = That woman is beautiful.

In some cases it can use special case forms to indicate definiteness:

Хочу выпить чай. = I want to drink out the tea.

Хочу выпить чаю. = I want to drink some tea.

Я жду письмо. = I wait for the letter.

Я жду письма. = I wait for a letter.

In some cases it can use capitalization with words like "President", "God", "Motherland" and some others to indicate definiteness.

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