20 July 2015

Undefined article error

No, Blogger isn't on the blink, that's the intended title of the article.

The error in question is the continued use of classical terminology for grammatical articles: specifically the terms definite article and indefinite article. For over a decade, I tried to reconcile the grammatical feature with the common sense of the words "definite" and "indefinite" -- i.e. certain and uncertain -- but it made no sense at all.

It wasn't until I started discussing grammar in foreign languages that I clicked what I'd been missing all along -- the terms we use are basically a mistranslation of classical terminology.

The English word definite has diverged drastically from its etymological roots, but this is not true in the Romance languages on mainland Europe. When the French say défini or the Spanish say definido, what they are actually saying is defined.

That's right, the definite article is really the defined article, which means the indefinite article must be the undefined article. From that perspective, everything seems to make much more sense.

Plenty of languages survive quite well without any articles -- they are essentially redundant as even in English, in a lot of circumstances you can drop them without losing any information in the sentence.

What I'd never got my head round was that the articles don't add any information to the sentence -- they simply act as a sort of "signpost" to information that already exists elsewhere. But most importantly, it refers to the listener's frame of reference and not the speakers.

What the definite article flags up is essentially "you know which one I mean", and the indefinite article says "you don't know which one I mean". If I say "You should go home -- the wife'll be waiting," context says I'm talking about your wife, but if I say "I should go home -- the wife'll be waiting," then you know that I'm talking about my wife. And if I say "a friend of mine is coming to visit," I'm telling you that I don't expect you to know which one I'm talking about. But in both cases, if you delete the articles, I would still make the assumption of yours/mine or that I'm not sure in the second.

Now I know that isn't very clear, but to be honest, I still haven't got this that clear in my own head.

This "signposting" idea is pretty abstract, so describing it is pretty difficult. But to be fair, it's no more abstract than the phenomenon it's describing, and the more I think about articles, the more weird and abstract they look to me. For something at first class so basic, they are incredibly complex.

I suppose I'll be working for years trying to work out the best way to teach, discuss and describe them, but for now I'll satisfy myself with using the terms defined and undefined in place of definite and indefinite, because at the very least we'll be one step closer to a meaningful definition.


Peregrinus said...

Your comments about definite/indefinite are interesting. However, such words do serve another purpose in less heavily declined languages like German, where they convey the case of the substantive they are attached to where the substantive itself is not declined. While in some of the cases German does decline the substantive, it is a minority of such words.

Regarding your point as to teaching, are you concerned at all that introducing new terms, even if related to the old ones, and despite being more logical or faithfully translated, might cause confusion to learners who will mainly see the old, standard terms in virtually every other teaching work?

BTW, I am sure you have noticed the goings-on at HTLAL and the new temporary forum that might become a permanent replacement. Perhaps you will have a new perch in forum-land soon :).

Nìall Beag said...

I see your point about German, so I'll move the goalposts slightly. ;-)

The nature of the article is redundant, although the case marking is not. If you were to replace both the defined and undefined article (and no article) with a single case-marking particle (and remove the corresponding strong/mixed/weak declension differences), I still think the full meaning of the sentence would be preserved with practically no increase in ambiguity.

That said, it would leave "keine" etc looking a bit weird and lonely, and as that's one of my favourite things about German, I'll not attempt to rewrite the language just yet!

Nìall Beag said...

As for teaching, yes, there is a danger of confusion, which is why I typically prefer to avoid technical terminology until the concept is well-formed.

My initial approach will continue to be to talk about equivalent terms in the native language (eg "the is the English for la [etc]") and then tell them the technical term later on. But when I do, I think I will have to use the traditional name alongside a quick mention of it being a mistranslation.

The major question I'm mulling over is when and where there would be a need to actually discuss what "a" and "the" mean. Does it help a language learner, or is it only important to a student of linguistics? I suppose the answer depends on how different the native and target languages are from each other in terms of articles...

random review said...

What do you think the bizarrely named "null article" points to? E.g. in Spanish, if "tengo el móbil\celular" means you know which one I'm talking about and "tengo un móbil\celular" means you don't know which one I'm talking about, does "tengo móvil\celular" mean it doesn't make a blind bit of difference which one I'm talking about? That would fit pretty well with usage IMO.

As for German, the articles carry case and gender information, true; but even here having two of them (definite vs indefinite) is surely redundant.

Nìall Beag said...

AKA the "zero article"... Well, it's not always that simple.

First up, you've got the use of zero article as indefinite for uncountables and plural countables in English ("I have bread and potatoes") where languages such as French would explicitly use a partitive ("J'ai du pain et des pommes-de-terre").

Secondly, you've got the use of zero article with a class of things in English vs Spanish et al's definite article. ("I like apples" vs "me gustan las manzanas")

Then we've got the zero used with nouns in what I've heard referred to as an "institutional" sense -- eg the difference between "I'm at the school" (physical location) and "I'm at school" (ie I'm either teaching or learning).
"No tengo móvil" seems to have an institutional sense -- the lack of mobile phone means you can't make phone calls.

In essence, the difference is that the terms "definite article" and "indefinite article" refer to a function, whereas the "zero article" or "null article" is a description of form. Different languages use the form for various functions, so it's impossible to sum it up neatly.