A definite article is a morpheme that frequently occurs in noun phrases and codes definiteness, like the in English. Articles are usually treated as separate words, but they may also be regarded as affixes on the noun, as in Swedish (kung 'king', kungen 'the king'). This chapter is modeled on Dryer’s (2005b) WALS chapter.
A definite noun phrase is a noun phrase whose referent can be uniquely identified by the hearer. Unique identifiability occurs in a range of different circumstances. One such context is in anaphoric situations, i.e. when the referent has been mentioned previously. This is illustrated in (1), where ‘the fish’ in the second clause is uniquely identifiable because it was mentioned just before. In this example, the definite noun phrase is coded by the demonstrative eta ‘that’, but this could equally be translated by a definite article.
Unique identifiability also holds in associative contexts, where a referent has not been mentioned directly in the preceding context but is identifiable because of an association with a previously mentioned referent.
Here aldeia ‘neighbourhood’ has not been mentioned previously, but the noun kaza evokes various concepts such as 'roof', 'door', 'owner', 'neighbourhood' that can be uniquely identified when a house is mentioned.
Finally, a noun phrase may be uniquely identifiable because it is used generically, referring to the entire kind rather than to a particular instance, as in (3) (where 'fevers' is understood generically).
Definite articles are sometimes difficult to distinguish from demonstratives, because a noun modified by a demonstrative is always uniquely identifiable, and the specific semantic contribution of the demonstrative need not be a pointing use, but can be an anaphoric use. Thus, example (1) could just as easily be rendered as 'Xeczu bought a fish, this fish was alive', and in fact we have no reason to think that the morpheme eta in Chinese Pidgin Russian is anything but a demonstrative. However, demonstratives are not used when the noun phrase is used associatively (cf. 2), or is used generically (cf. 3). If a morpheme can be used in one of these contexts for unique reference, it is considered a definite article.
Note that definite articles need not be obligatory. They are normally frequent when the referent is uniquely identifiable, but they are also often absent, e.g. when a possessor is present (and especially when a demonstrative is present, cf. Chapter 31).
Four different values are distinguished:
|Definite article distinct from demonstratives||38|
|Definite article identical to a demonstrative||19|
|No definite article, but indefinite article||10|
|Neither definite nor indefinite article||9|
Many pidgins and creoles are like English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese in that they have a special definite article that is distinct from a demonstrative. Almost all English-based languages are of this type, and in almost all of them, the English distinction between the and this/that has survived. Examples are given in (4).
The distinction has also survived in some of the Philippine Spanish-based creoles (cf. Spanish el/la vs. este/esta):
In some languages, demonstratives are expressed by postnominal spatial deictic elements:
And in some languages, the distinction is a purely prosodic one, with more stress or a higher pitch on the demonstrative:
In a few languages, the definite article only occurs in the plural and is simultaneously a plural marker (e.g. Santome inen mosu [3pl.def boy] 'the boys'). Such plural markers derive from the third person plural personal pronoun and are quite unrelated to demonstratives (see Chapter 25).
There are also many languages whose definite article is not distinct from a demonstrative. In all the cases where we know more about the history of the forms, the demonstrative use is the original use, and the word has been extended to a definite-article use, e.g.
Such definite articles are usually not obligatory, so to establish that they are really definite articles as well, it must be clear that they can be used associatively or generically. Examples (2) and (3) show definite articles that could also be used as demonstratives. Another example is (9), which has an occurrence of kela 'that, the' in a demonstrative use and another occurrence in an associative use ('priest' is evoked by 'church').
The languages of the remaining two types have no definite articles. Value 3 comprises languages that at least have an indefinite article (see also Chapter 29). Example (10) shows two noun phrases, a definite and an indefinite one, and only the latter has an article.
Finally, the languages of the last type do not have any article. In (11), again we see an indefinite and a definite noun phrase, and neither has an article.
Another such language is Chinese Pidgin Russian, illustrated in (1).