The Disappearing.

Sorry, that’s a garden-path headline: “disappearing” is not a noun but a verb. The, the definite article, is softly and silently vanishing away. And not only in English, according to Mark Liberman’s Log post:

For the past century or so, the commonest word in English has gradually been getting less common. Depending on data source and counting method, the frequency of the definite article THE has fallen substantially — in some cases at a rate as high as 50% per 100 years.

At every stage, writing that’s less formal has fewer THEs, and speech generally has fewer still, so to some extent the decline of THE is part of a more general long-term trend towards greater informality. But THE is apparently getting rarer even in speech, so the change is more than just the (normal) shift of writing style towards the norms of speech.

There appear to be weaker trends in the same direction, at overall lower rates, in German, Italian, Spanish, and French.

I’ll lay out some of the evidence for this phenomenon, mostly collected from earlier LLOG posts. And then I’ll ask a few questions about what’s really going on, and why and how it’s happening.

The evidence is convincing, and the phenomenon is (to me) astonishing. Why is it happening? Mark offers several possibilities, none of which “seem empirically very promising.” And there’s a follow-up post showing that the same thing is happening in Dutch. At least this is one problem Russians don’t have to worry about.

Comments

  1. Not the Russians living in the Anglo world. Not only is “the” a challenge, it’s also a constantly evolving one??

  2. According to Google ngrams, among the 10 most frequent English words only for gained ground during the 20th century. Better title then is English language is disappearing or is it the English language?

  3. I will tell you what is happening.

    English became a global language and it is increasingly spoken by people all over the world as a second-language.

    They vastly outnumber native English speakers and hence, have greater impact on evolution of English.

    And since use of definite article is the greatest difficulty for non-native speakers of English, it’s quite natural that we see the disappearing….

  4. But that doesn’t explain the same trend in German, a weaker trend in Spanish and French to the same effect, and an even stronger trend in Italian.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Like many such Language Log posts, the article in question is heavy on graphs and statistics but low in actual examples, especially of “before” and “after” examples. But it seems that it is not so much the omission of the where it used to be that causes the diminution in the occurrences of the determiner, but the use of other noun phrase structures.

    Without examples I can’t comment on what is happening in French or other Romance languages.

    SFR: It is true that the use of English by L2 speakers has been increasing, but it does not seem that the article refers to English as used in countries where it is not the native language of most of the population. I don’t think that British or American usage is influenced by the variety of English used in India, for instance, or in translations from the Russian or Chinese press.

  6. m.-l., in the comments to the LL post I put in some excerpts from U.S. State of the Union addresses which I hope illustrate the effect. I am hoping that someone who is a better editor than myself would demonstrate how some of the article-rich passages can be transformed into article-poor ones, or vice versa.

  7. Hi Y, I was going to answer m-l in the same way as you did… And I think I gave you the answer in that comment thread. Many of Bush’s noun phrases would be prepended by “the” in Wilson’s days, if I’m getting the drifts right.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    From time to time my French colleagues ask me to check texts they have written in English. A significant part of the work consists of inserting “the” where it is missing, and deleting “the” where it is not wanted. (There are also the misuse of “respectively” and making long compound adjectives.)

  9. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    The English the may be disappearing but, contrariwise, I can totally see Polish developing a definite article in the next couple of generations; I already say sentences with like five-six demonstratives in them, not pointing at anything.

  10. Not the Russians living in the Anglo world. Not only is “the” a challenge, it’s also a constantly evolving one??

    Heh. But what I meant was that the Russians don’t have to worry about their own articles disappearing, since they don’t have any.

  11. AJP "Jeremy" Crowncorbyn says:

    Something that’s slightly odd is the way in England the Labour Party drops the the. One speaks of the Tory Party, the Tories, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Greens, but “Labour”. Labour would reduce the defence budget, whereas the Tories don’t give a shit. But what drives me absolutely ROUND THE BEND is when Labour drops the definite article of its party conference. The Tories write normally:

    The Conservative Party is delighted that our annual conference returns to Birmingham in 2016, with the event split between the ICC and Hyatt Regency Hotel. With a packed schedule of fringe events, receptions and speeches, the Conference is a chance for our members, the press and the public to learn about our ideas and policies for the year ahead.

    But Labour anthropomophises its conference by removing the the and turning Conference tacitly into a name like Basil or Topsy:

    How can I apply to attend Conference?

    The quickest and easiest way to apply for Conference is online. Please ensure you choose the correct pass when applying as we are unable to downgrade your pass once the application has been completed. Applications for Annual Conference will open in January 2016

    I have been to Conference before, do I need to apply again?

    Anyone wishing to attend Conference, whether or not they have been before, must apply.

    Journalists and Labour Party officials speak only of “Conference”, but I don’t think other people do so – not yet, anyway. At the moment, it’s a bit of a shibboleth.

  12. Why is it happening?

    Because reasons.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: Conference

    If I saw those “Conference” quotations without knowing the context I would not think of a personal name but assume that the information came from some fringe religious group, as in “at/attending church/service/fellowship …/conference”.

  14. More or less, but it is capitalized. I was once part of a (non-religious) organization that referred to its annual convention as “Convention”, capitalized and without article.

  15. If I saw those “Conference” quotations without knowing the context I would not think of a personal name but assume that the information came from some fringe religious group
    Maybe a sign of what Labour is becoming under Corbyn?

  16. Labour’s Reformation and Counter-Reformation are looming ….

  17. AJP Crown says:

    Hans: a sign of what Labour is becoming under Corbyn?

    No, this predates Corbyn. It may always have been so in the Labour party. The name “Labour” works perhaps because labour is used as a noun elsewhere, for example as one of the four factors of production (land, labour, capital… entrepreneurship? I took Economics A-level but haven’t thought about this much since then), so if the Tories or Greens were the Land Party, they could be “Land”.

    m-l: I would not think of a personal name but assume that the information came from some fringe religious group

    It might be an early Welsh party connection to miners and leaders like Aneurin Bevan: Chapel.

  18. Land, labor, and capital should be it. Neos and Marxists make it just labor and capital, because neoliberals think land is capital (we can always make more!) and Marxists think capital is land (factories just grow out of the ground!).

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    I actually am a Labour Party member, which presumably pretty much proves that the modern Labour Party must be a weird cult (on Marx-ist grounds.)

  20. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: conference … Chapel …

    Indeed!

  21. David Marjanović says:

    How about:

    1) Headline grammar, preceded by telegram grammar, changing people’s views on what sounds utterly bizarre.

    2) Space-saving caption grammar (“Above: Famous sportsball player [name] with wife [name] and son [name].”) seems to be the origin of the use of all kinds of descriptions as titles that don’t take articles. (A German prescriptivist/style guru claims to have traced this to one particular magazine, (Der) Spiegel, though I’m sure that’s wrong.)

    3) I’ve noticed that utterance-initial demonstratives are often dropped in colloquial US English, leaving bare nouns stranded. (“Asshole took my parking spot!”)

  22. Utterance-initial anythings are often dropped in English without regard to grammar. However it sounds to me like what is happening is not that constructions with the are losing the, but rather that the frequency of such constructions is dropping. We are not seeing anything even remotely like this among native speakers:

    I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk. My old man taught me two things: “Mind own business” and “Always cut cards.” Politics never tempted me.

  23. David Marjanović, don’t forget Twitter.

  24. Hans: a sign of what Labour is becoming under Corbyn?

    No, this predates Corbyn.
    Just in case you misunderstood me – I wasn’t talking about “Labour” without article, but about “Conference”. If you say that’s old, too, then there’s no misunderstanding.

  25. AJP Crown says:

    Conference is old too, Hans. I ought to have made a separate paragraph for Labour.

    DM: utterance-initial demonstratives are often dropped in colloquial US English
    Not confined to the United States, it happens all over (“Absolute rotter took my parking spot!”) and isn’t confined to the (“There isn’t any sunshine when she’s gawn” is what’s implied by the colloquial song lyric “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”).

  26. From Bill O’Reilly’s classic meltdown: “Fuckin’ thing sucks!”

    There are also cases like “The fuck was that?” or “The fuck you lookin’ at?” where it’s a wh- word that gets dropped.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    don’t forget Twitter.

    Too recent.

  28. Initial word dropping is really quite global: “[I’m going] off to the store, [do you want to] come with me?” Jespersen noted it as a feature of English in particular, though I can’t give a citation.

  29. I was mostly joking about Twitter, though since I started tweeting some years ago I think I have noticed myself omitting the in non-Twitter writing in places where I wouldn’t normally have.

  30. To speculate, an English-speaking country would not be named “The United States” if it were founded today.

  31. No, we’d have to call ourselves “The Formerly British Republic in the Middle of North America”.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Counterexamples: The University of Iowa, The University of Texas at Austin.

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    It has a ring to it. You could always call it Fubar for short.

  34. Off the top of my head:

    My feeling is that ‘the’ was used to distinguish, but now I feel that the lack of the definite article distinguishes, e.g. ‘now I feel that lack of definite article distinguishes’. As a native speaker, I feel that the quote has more impact.

    Intellectual scientific reductionism tends to obscure or ignore the feeling that syntax produces. I think this is a major source of language change. Probably this is not an original thought.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    There’s a tendency to drop the definite article in Norwegian too, but this is definitely not colloquialism. It’s poorly understood formalism. Sociolinguistically I think it’s nourished from a wish to avoid awkward choices between feminine and masculine inflections for grammatical feminines.

  36. I don’t know if the use of “the” is declining among native speakers, but our teachers had a hard time stopping us from overusing it as we subconsciously translated sentences from Greek to English, saying things like, “The horses are fine animals”, “The city dwellers are very busy people”, “The cinema is cheap entertainment”, etc. But, hey, we simply cannot speak without using some form of the definite article after about every three words, so who can blame us?

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s natural for native speakers to suppose that all the uses of English “the” belong together, so that the word has a single (admittedly hard to pin down) “meaning.”
    However, if you compare the use of “the” with the definite articles of other languages, you soon discover that this is not so.
    There’s the core use as “already-mentioned” marker; I don’t believe there is any change there as it would be frankly ungrammatical for all native speakers; if it’s omitted that is always as an utterance-initial ellipsis of the very colloquial sort that can affect other words too,as various people have pointed out:

    The word we are discussing

    is grammatical, but

    *Word we are discussing

    is possible only in a very colloquial style, and even unsophisticated speakers will reinsert “the” if asked to repeat it.

    The assumed-background “the”, as in “the Sun” “the Pope” is similar. Native speakers don’t omit the article in formal speech; to do so immediately marks the speaker as non-native. It’s an error, now as previously.

    But English also uses “the” to mark *generics*.

    “The Woman of Tomorrow”
    “The People of England”

    I’ve cheated and tilted the scales by picking examples which sound antiquated anyway, but I do have a feeling (great evidence, eh?) that this generic use of the definite article is beginning to sound rather grandparentish. I’m pretty sure that even I would be very much more likely to say “tomorrow’s women” or “English people.”

    I bet it’s the generic use of “the” which is disappearing. There are alternatives which sound nowadays more natural; and it explains why what on the face of it seems so counterintuitive could be going on after all: to a native speaker it seems impossible that even those pesky youngsters could be omitting “the” because the result of doing so seems always to be an outright error; but that’s because one tends to be thinking of the much commoner old/background-information-marking “the.”

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve confused the issue further by picking examples which also involve what might be itself an old-fashioned turn of phrase “the X of Y”; I agree with other commenters that a decline in such constructions may explain part of the change. But I think it’s basically the decline of generic “the”:

    The horse is a large animal.

    I got to thinking about this in my ongoing efforts to get my Kusaal grammar into a form uploadable without undue embarrassment: Kusaal has a definite article; it is used to mark old information and assumed background stuff but never generically. The equivalent of the above in Kusaal would have to be “a horse is a large animal.”

    Ariadne’s Greek-to-English problems are opposite, but analogous; Greek uses definite articles with generic meaning much *more* freely than English.

    So my thesis is basically that English is becoming less like Greek and more like Kusaal.

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    It occurs to me that this is testable. Obviously in principle you could look at the actual usage of “the” over time in English, but this would be to put it mildly rather more laborious than word-counting in corpora. However you could look at the other languages (like German and Dutch) where this seems to be happening, compare them with languages where no such process seems to be going on, and see if the difference actually does correspond to a difference in the usage of definite articles between the languages in question.

    If (as seems to be the case) it’s also happening in Italian, I suspect that might mean I’m wrong; Italian definite article usage seems much less like English than that of German or Dutch. French, likewise.

  40. Pure speculation, but I wonder if Italian is beginning to ditch il mio libro in favor of the article-less form used by most other European languages.

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    To get more precise about it: my hypothesis is that decline in frequency of definite articles is due (cross-linguistically in Western Europe) specifically to decline in the use of definite articles with generic reference; if it’s happening in languages which don’t use their definite articles with generic reference at all, the hypothesis is false, and this would be comparatively easy to check, except for the awkward hitch that offhand I can’t think of such a language in Western Europe.

    Many non-Germanic European languages are closer to Greek than English in this, using definite articles commonly not only with generic count nouns but with abstract nouns, or with words with other determiners as well. If they also show declining use of definite articles, it would invalidate the hypothesis if there was no drop in their generic use, but as John Cowan suggests, they might independently be dropping *other* uses like the cooccurrence with other determiners. Either way, simple counting wouldn’t answer the question, though JC’s particular suggestion should be comparatively straightforward to check.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Somewhat belatedly consulting an actual reference work, I find that in Quirk et al’s “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language” there’s a whole section on the generic use of the definite article; with singular noun phrases, it’s described as “formal” (which is pretty much equivalent to “old-fashioned”, I guess) and says further that it’s particularly awkward with human reference

    ?”The Welshman is a good singer.”

    but less so when used to identify a whole class via typical characteristics of personality and appearance as in

    “He spoke with the consummate assurance and charm of the successful Harley Street surgeon.”

    With plural noun phrases it is confined to nationality names and phrases with an adjective head referring to a group of people, eg

    the Chinese
    the blind

    but not (in this sense)

    *The wolves are carnivorous,
    *The hydrogen is lighter than the oxygen.

    They go on to say that it is also possible to argue that “the Chinese” “the blind” etc are not truly generic.
    It’s interesting too that constructions like these have also ended up actively stigmatised as politically incorrect, though not, I would have thought, for long enough to be a significant factor in the-vanishing.

    What I’m less convinced of now is that generic-the was ever common enough in the first place for its (supposed) decline to make any great difference. Checkable in principle, though.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    What I’m less convinced of now is that generic-the was ever common enough in the first place for its (supposed) decline to make any great difference.

    It may have been in formal writing. The enemy, for instance, used to be consistently singular and definite, while today indefinite terrorists are lurking behind every corner.

  44. AJP Crown says:

    Flying Scotsman – like Ukraine, it does not take the definite article – was recently voted the world’s favourite train, ahead of Thomas the Tank Engine, the Hogwarts Express and India’s Rajadhani Express.

  45. Star Trek has been inconsistent when referring to its ships. The original incarnation (1966-91) and The Next Generation (1987-2002) both spoke of “the Enterprise”, and Deep Space 9 (1993-99) of “the Defiant”; but Voyager (1995-2001) and the prequel series Enterprise (2001-05) both spoke of their titular ships without the article. Abrams has returned to “the Enterprise”, though.

  46. It’s never productive to dispute with a wordy intellect captive of science, but if feeling plays no part in language, why literature?

    You can throw Catalan into your speculation too, JC.

    AJP, why did you insert the def. art. before Hogwarts Express? And, dropping def. arts before entities of political geography feels like amputation to one who was raised with them. Has El Peru lost its article?

  47. Lazar, Roddenberry’s conception was founded on 18th century naval tradition, but either he was unaware the def. art. was not used in British naval tradition, or common public useage overroad. I wonder if there was any discussion on this point, as there was with the pronunciation of Data’s name, which made it into the script.

  48. AJP Crown says:

    iakon, I didn’t insert a definite article. It’s a quotation from the article I linked to. I ought to have made that clear. I’m sorry I didn’t use a blockquote. However, the Hogwarts Express takes an article in the books, I think. And quite right too. “Hogwart’s Express” sounds like a drycleaners. The newspaper article says that the service is called “The Flying Scotsman”, but the engine itself is “Flying Scotsman”. It’s a dead subtle distinction, I wonder who has the job of figuring such things out.

  49. AJP Crown says:

    iakon: Has El Peru lost its article?

    “The Argentine” has.

  50. but either he was unaware the def. art. was not used in British naval tradition

    Well, what can you expect? He served in the Army.

  51. “Counterexamples: The University of Iowa, The University of Texas at Austin.”

    My wife, who is Midwestern, says, e.g., “He went to University of Michigan.”

    I was rereading the important Supreme Court decision Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) today, and was struck by the way the court refers to “the Erie.” This used to be standard for corporations, unions, government agencies, charities, etc. “The Hartford.” “The UAW.” “The FTC.” “The Red Cross.” Much less so today: “Google.” “AFSCME.” “DOJ.” “Doctors without Borders.”

  52. Initial word dropping is really quite global: “[I’m going] off to the store, [do you want to] come with me?” Jespersen noted it as a feature of English in particular, though I can’t give a citation.

    He called it prosiopesis:

    In *The Philosophy of Grammar* (Norton edition 1965, p. 310) [Jespersen] writes: “the speaker begins to articulate, or thinks he begins to articulate, but produces no audible sound (either for want of expiration, or because he does not put his vocal chords in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to say.” See also *A Modern English Grammar*, Vols. III and VII, both of which have several references in the index.

    (Quote from http://linguistlist.org/issues/2/2-753.html, which was linked from http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001277.html)

  53. Further reducible to “come with?” for some English speakers, owing to German influence.

  54. AJP Crown says:

    (Or Skandinavian.)

  55. Can someone please explain to me how I can put my “vocal cords in the right position” before I open my mouth to say anything, or what is indeed this “right position”? And are there different positions for different languages? Perhaps that’s why people at first find it difficult to understand what I say (well, at least in English): my cords are dislocated! Or, perhaps they are to blame: they just don’t put their ears in the right position.

  56. True. According to Bert Vaux’s 2003 survey data, the states where a majority of the respondents accepted “Are you coming with?” are Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nevada (barely).

  57. Although that’s plainly a calque of some sort, it’s further evidence for the CGEL idea that prepositions, subordinating conjunctions, and adverb-like particles are all the same part of speech in English, and it’s lexically specific which ones take noun phrases, clauses, or nothing (or any combination) as their objects. For example, before can take all three types: “before this one”, “before you reach the city”, “going on before”, whereas behind, which is etymologically very similar, cannot take a clause: “*behind you reach the city”.

    In this dialect with can take nothing as well as a noun phrase, just as very recently because has begun to take noun phrases in more mainstream varieties, because language change.

  58. I’m not sure what Jespersen meant “putting the vocal cords in the right position”. You can’t move them all over the place, but you can let them separate fully (as when breathing), close fully (as when swallowing) or separate just a bit (as when voicing).

  59. David Marjanović says:

    I do have trouble with “switching my vocal cords on” after I’ve been silent for hours. The outcome, though, is very different: I just blurt out the full ritual politeness phrase in such a low voice that probably nobody hears it.

  60. AJP: ‘drycleaners’! Ha!

    I haven’t seen or heard ‘the Argentine’ or ‘Argentine’ in years. It always seemed geographical rather than political.

  61. Good one, JC!

  62. Lebanon used to be “The Lebanon”. And the country ensconced in Senegal is still officially “The Gambia” (after the river), even though with that final -ia it just cries out to be anarthrous.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    coming with

    I have heard Are you coming with? said (and discussed) by a linguistics student who was from one of the Canadian Prairie provinces (either Saskatchewan or Manitoba) where the verb phrase was quite normal in everyday speech, apparently because of the ethnic German heritage in the area.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    (The) University of X

    I remember this topic being discussed years ago on Language Log.

    I wonder if the addition of The in the university context was meant to suggest that there was only one university worthy of the name in the state or city.

  65. I was chatting with a man yesterday who told me he’d recently moved to Washington to take a job “with Food and Drug Administration.” In 30 years of living in DC, I’d never heard that name without “the.”

    Today on NPR there was a news bite about events “in Central African Republic.”

  66. It’s a Washington shibboleth to use CIA without the article, and a CIA shibboleth (or used to be) to call it the company rather than the Agency, probably because the former is actively misleading. “Who, me, work for the gummint? Oh no.”

  67. Having a close relative who works for CIA, I can attest that he never calls it “the company,” but rather “the agency.” I don’t know how general this preference is among his coworkers, but he definitely considers “the company” old-fashioned and tacky.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Having a close relative who works for CIA, I can attest that he never calls it “the company,” but rather “the agency.”

    Now I wonder what the employees of No Such Agency call theirs.

  69. They could tell you, but they’d have to kill you.

  70. I was under the impression they just Never Say Anything.

  71. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @iakon:

    I haven’t seen or heard ‘the Argentine’ or ‘Argentine’ in years. It always seemed geographical rather than political.

    If one trusts the POS tagging in Google Ngrams, the arthrous form seems to have steadily declined since the beginning of the 20th century.

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