Linguistics (long time - no update)

The last post doesn't really count as an update. Last days I'm pretty busy with learning for the "Mathematical optimization" and Norwegian language courses. In between I'm finishing the documentation for a software project that I'm planning to release soon.

While learning Norwegian, I've realized that I don't really understand the concept of definiteness ("a" vs. "the" in English). I'm using it by "feeling" based on experience and a large number of memorized use-cases. Most of the time (>50%) I'm right, but still too often wrong for my personal taste. I see how much I'm wrong when I give my texts to someone else for proofreading. My first language is Croatian, and we simply don't have the concept of definiteness.

The usual rule explained in schools is that definite form is used when it is known what you're talking about, or when it has been mentioned before. So, here are two counterexamples where this "rule" fails.

When talking about certaing things, you might want to ask "What's THE difference?". But why "THE" instead of "A"? The difference might not exist, might not be known to the other party and most probably it has not been mentioned before in the conversation.

Another case: I'm currently a student and if I were to introduce myself to someone in the administration, I would say "I'm A student that.." But why A, not THE? I'm something very concrete and known to myself (obviously) and also known to the other person, as I'm standing right in front of him/her.

The most plausible short explanation, that I can accept,was given to me by someone over irc: the definiteness is not about known/mentioned vs. unknown/not mentioned, but notion vs. concrete. In the first example "the difference" is definite as the conversation is about the difference in one concrete case, and in the second case "a student" is indefinite as it is only a notion that describes me in more detail. Still, I could find exceptions to this "rule" too.

I've discussed the issue with many Norwegians and almost drove them crazy. I've shown them some examples from the course book, asked them why is in this example (in)definite form and what would it mean if it were changed the other way. Nobody could give me a satisfactory answer, except that it would "sound strange". They were unsure about how the meaning changes, if at all. The teacher also failed to explain to me the definiteness issue.

The problem, when learning a new language, is that I don't have this feeling about "sounding right" that I've acquired (rather than learned) in English. In more complicated cases when there are no clear rules to apply, I'm just guessing with the expected result - being wrong about 50% of the time.

A lesser problem is when to use preteritum (sometimes also called imperfect; simple past tense in English) vs. perfect (present perfect in English). Again, the concept of definiteness creeps out in the "short rules". Preteritum is used when talking about a determined point in the past time, and perfect is used when the exact time is not important. In Croatian we have 4 past tenses. Of them, perfect is used roughly 95% of the time, plusquamperfect 4% of the time, and the other two (imperfect and aorist) 1% of the time, mostly in "artistic" literature. In the spoken language, you will hear aorist or imperfect in few phrases. For some reason, it is easier for me to grasp the "time" definiteness. It is always somehow implied in the broader context. I still sometimes do mistakes, but not nearly as often as with articles.

To conclude, the article usage (definiteness) is still a mystery to me, while I've almost grasped the usage of preteritum vs. perfect. Here are some interesting links:

If you follow other links on theese pages, you can have some quite interesting read. Until very recentlty, I've thoght that I could never get interested in linguistics. Never say never!


Anonymous said...

I GUESS you're getting interested in linguistics is THE same reason you have interest in programming langugages. You appreciate logic and you're trying to find rules in your universe.

I always had (and still have) problem with grammatical rules: I simply don't like exceptions. Ok, there's another problem of vocabulary, but that exceptions are IMO worse.

Ivica :)

Anonymous said...

I just realized I made couple of grammatical errors. :)

Anonymous said...

...the definiteness is not about known/mentioned vs. unknown/not mentioned, but notion vs. concrete...

This is as good an explanation as you are likely to find. It seems to me that your whole article mentions only obliquely ("...sounds right...") what I call "the original fallacy of grammar": The grammar is not a set of rules by which a language has been constructed, it is a finite set of rather primitive abstractions which we use to impose learning order on an infinitely complex organism, of which every piece is understood by at least two people, but there is nobody that understands it all (warning: most language scholars and teachers pretend they do, and in process forever confuse the young minds).

And to complicate the scene further, the organism we are attempting to describe is continuously changing, while our abstraction of it resists the change with the inner logic of any academic discipline.