Monday, December 26, 2022

Articulating “the” situation in English, French, Hebrew and Russian


[statue of St. Pierre - Rome*]

While all languages have nouns, verbs and adjectives, the shy article identifying whether the noun is general or specific, the and a for English speakers, is a fascinating demonstration of the variety of approaches to defining ideas and how they affect second language learning. To demonstrate, English, French, Hebrew and Russian all have different rules for specifying nouns, which can often indicate the native language of writers when they write in another language, English in this example.

As a base line for this post, English article rules, granted a potentially controversial approach, distinguish general and specific nouns, ignore gender and sometimes allow the article to be optional. As a rule, the word a (an) before a noun in the singular or no article at all for a noun in the plural indicate non-specificity: A teacher/Teachers can kick you out of class. By contrast, the word the before both singular and plural nouns indicates specific examples: the teachers [at our school] are on strike. To complicate matters, abstract nouns do not require articles: Charity is the backbone of religion, with both charity and religion singular and without an article. In contrast, English nouns do not have gender, allowing English to have single comprehensive articles, specifically the and a, with an being used for pronunciation reasons, i.e., before a vowel sound, not a vowel as many students think. See a human vs an hour and a unicorn vs an umbrella. Finally, in phrases, English allows the omission of articles after the first noun, e.g., I brought the bread, butter and jam, with it being understood that the word the also applies to butter and jam. Most native English speaker intuitively understand these rules but not necessarily all ESL students.

French has the same articles but the distinction is less clear,  adds gender and number considerations and requires that all nouns have articles. The direct equivalent of the English articles are un/une and le/la/les/l’. In practice, their use is different from English. First, while the difference between un gateau and le gateau is clear, note the sentence la charitė est la colonne vertébrale de la religion uses the definite article, i.e., la, as compared to non-use of articles in English for the same sentence. Since French nouns, similar to most European languages, have a gender, the form of the article is adjusted for masculine, feminine and even plural: le gateau, la pâtisserie and les desserts. The l’ is used before vowel sounds, including before silent h’s, e.g., la hollondaise and l’angoise. The most common mistake of English speakers in French is to fail add the article to all nouns in a list, e.g., J’ai apporté le pain, le beurre, et la confiture. The different approach to articles in abstract nouns and lists is often noticeable in learners.

Hebrew only has half the article package, sometimes buries it but often is more than generous with its use. Specifically, Hebrew has a particle for a specific noun, the letter hehה , which it attaches to the relevant noun, e.g., חתול [hatul], a cat as compared to החתול [hehatul], the cat. In other words, the absence of the letter heh means that the noun is non-specific. The ambiguity is when a prepositional particle such as ב [bə], in, or ל [lə], to, is also added because the prepositional particle may include the article. Without full vowel markings, בקופסה  [bekufsa] could mean in a box or in the box. Not only that, in compound nouns, Hebrew adds the article to the second noun only. For example, compare בית ספר  [beit safer], literally house of  a booka school, to בית הספר [beit hasafer], the school. By contrast, the definitive articles is added to all adjectives describing said noun. Compare חתול שחור [hatul shahor], a black cat, with החתול השחור [hehatul hashahor], the black cat. The result of this binary approach to the difference between definite and indefinite articles is that Israelis often make errors in applying them in English, particularly the word a.

As is typical in the Russian language, it went down a different route and simply has no articles, definite or indefinite. Instead, Russian indicates the specificity of the noun through noun case, word order or adding words. To quote Wikipedia: “The use of a direct object in the genitive instead of the accusative in negation signifies that the noun is indefinite, compare: Я не вижу книги [ya ne viju knigi]("I don't see a book" or "I don't see any books") and Я не вижу книгу [ya ne viju knigu] ("I don't see the book").” (Sorry for the quote but the writer did such a good job.). As for word order, again from Wikipedia: “compare В комнату вбежал мальчик [b’komnatu vebyejal malchik] ("Into the room rushed a boy") and Мальчик вбежал в комнату [malchik vebyejal b’komatyu]  ("The boy rushed into the room").” Finally, the addition of words such as какой-нибудь [kakoe nibud] or Любые [lubiye], which can be translated as any, makes it clear that no specific object is intended. The results of this syntactic approach is the most Russians have no clear idea of how to use the and a in English.

All roads to Rome, they say. So, as long as the text transmits the intention of the writer, everything is kosher. At the same time, it is fascinating to see how languages approach the subtle matter of definitive and non-definitive articles. Not only does it show the variety of approaches human languages take but, on a practical level, it sometimes allows the reader to identify the native language of the writer.

* Picture captions allows the blind to fully access the Internet.

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