Among the comments on an old post, a question about definite articles has been posed, and I thought it deserved it’s own post. Here’s the question:

Does anybody know if a system like the definite/indefinite article system exists in any other languages beside Indo-European and Semitic ones?

I can’t think of any non-Indo-European or non-Semitic languages with definite and/or indefinite articles. Can you?

This entry was posted in Language.

8 Responses to Articles

  1. Anders says:

    I did a quick search on the internet and found out that there are conlangs like Esperanto with articles. I found a Basque example, emakume – woman, emakumea – the woman. And I found the Seri-language, quoteing:

    The Seri language of northwestern Mexico has several definite articles which are relatively recent creations based on nominalized verbs meaning ‘stand’, ‘sit’, ‘lie’, ‘be located’, ‘come’ and ‘go’. The definite articles therefore also provide additional information about the position of the item to which the noun refers. Furthermore, they have begun to become more grammaticalized as certain basic nouns and derived nouns begin to require one article or another. The articles are used with proper names and also between nouns and their modifiers, under certain conditions, much like in Greek. The singular indefinite article in Seri is apparently etymologically derived from the word for ‘one’, as in many other languages.

    More about Seri at

  2. Mike says:

    I seem to remember in a class last year, the prof saying that Cantonese had no definite or indefinite articles, and then a Cantonese-speaking student saying that on the contrary, popular Cantonese uses the word for “that” as a general definite article, and “one” for the indefinite.

  3. BnB says:

    Hmmm… put that way, seems I’ve heard Mandarin speakers use “zheige” (and yige?) similarly… but also “zheige” (and sometimes “neige”) seem to be used as “space fillers” when trying to think of a word to use, much the way “ano” is used in Japanese; in English it would be equivalent to saying, “the… the… the… “

  4. Ben L. says:

    一个/这个/那个 definitely seem to be used like articles in Mandarin. Perhaps the fact that they (I guess) have no special place in grammar leaves us with Mandarin still considered a non-article language. I agree with BnB’s observation, but would also go further and say they seem to be used a lot like we use articles as well, just not in all the situations we use them. I offer the following as examples:


  5. TJ says:

    Turkish and Chinese (as well as Persian I guess) use articles but …. they are kinda in the opposite way. We use definite articles and if the word is undefined we remove this article (in english there is an article for both cases of course), but in Chinese as I remember as well as Turkish they use the word “one” for indefinite word, while for a definite word they use nothing!

    By the way, isn’t it a bit weird to see celtic languages (or Irish and Scottish at least) use definite articles to define only and use nothing for indefinite words? Moreover, the article is not changed by gender (but by plurals) …. a bit like semitic languages! hmmmm…

  6. Laci the Hun says:

    Hungarian also uses definite article, and it has two different forms one is used before vowels and the other before consonants. Sometimes the word for “one” is used as indefinite article. and I guess other finno-ugric languages also use articles

  7. iwsfutcmd says:

    Coptic has a definite / indefinite article system. It actually looks quite complicated, but it’s there. Middle Egyptian actually didn’t have the article system, but stuff from the New Kingdom seems to have begun using certain pronouns as definite / indefinite articles.

    Granted, Coptic is related to the Semitic languages, but it’s not strictly semitic.


  8. homunq says:

    Mayan languages generally have a definite article (also used for proper nouns) something like “ri” or “li”, and an indefinite one that’s the word for “one” (“jun” or some variant). Not at all related to european or semitic languages, except by recent influence, obviously.

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