Langquirks: English Articles

If you’ve read my about page, you might remember that I enjoy reading up and learning languages. In my Langquirks articles, I’ll focus on tiny quirks and features of a language that set them apart in rather subtle, but unique ways from others.

This Langquirks article is about the indefinite articles in English – a and an.

English articles themselves do not feel particularly special or quirky at a first glance, when you consider its neighbourhood of Western Europe. After all, Irish, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese also contain articles and most have more articles than English.

To explain my point, I’ll list a simple phrase “a cat” and “an expedition” in English, French, German, and Spanish to demonstrate my point.

English A cat An expedition
French Un chat Une expédition
German Eine Katze Eine Expedition
Spanish Un gato Una expedición

In French, German and Spanish, the indefinite articles (Un/Une, Ein/Eine, Un/Una) change according to the grammatical gender of the word. Chat is masculine in French, while Expédition is feminine, so the article changes to reflect that.

Contrast this difference with English. English does not have grammatical gender, so why does the article change? It does so to accommodate the fact the Expedition begins with a vowel sound.

This feature, of the indefinite article changing to fit the sound of the next word, is pretty much unique to English. Irish has a similar feature, but both Irish articles are definite, meaning they correspond to the instead.

Other than that, there is one other feature unique to English articles.

In French, German, Spanish, the indefinite article corresponds quite closely with the word for one, which makes sense given that is how most indefinite articles originated.

Again, to compare. (*For the sake of brevity, I’m only including the basic case for German.)

Language Word for the number 1 Indefinite article
French Un Un, Une
German Eins Ein, Eine
Spanish Uno Uno, Una, Unos, Unas
Portuguese Um Um, Uns, Uma, Umas
English One A, An

Interestingly enough, the words a and an in English do originated from the word for one, but have diverged so far that English appears to have three commonly used words for denoting a single quantity of something.

That concludes this post about language quirks. I have more examples in mind, but this will likely not be a regular series, because you never know what can catch your eye.

 

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