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The Definite Article with Class Nouns in English and in French

The Definite Article with Class Nouns in English and in French

1. General Overview of the Category of Article in English and French


1.1 Article. General notion

An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun and to specify the volume or numerical scope of that reference. Article can be also thought of as a special kind of adjective, because it combines with a noun and contributes to the meaning of the noun-phrase. Many linguists place the article in the category of determiners. M. Ia. Blokh in his book “Theoretical Grammar of the English Language” says “The article is a determining unit of specific nature accompanying the noun in communicative collocation.” The linguists L. A. Barmina and I. P. Verkhovskaya have the same idea about the article as a determiner. They attribute it to a syntactic class of words called determiners which modify a noun. The dictionary of Thesaurus gives the definition of the word “article” as a determiner that may indicate the specificity of reference of a noun phrase. Webster’s New World College Dictionary refers to the article as used as adjectives. Also in this context we would like to add the words of the linguist B. Ilyish who devoted a whole chapter of his book “Stroi sovremennogo angliyskogo eazika” to the study of the article. He remarks that the article is usually a separate unit which may be divided from its noun by other words, chiefly adjectives.

So, we may conclude that the first feature of the article can be that the article is a determiner of the noun that refers to, that is why it can have some functions of an adjective and it is used as a separate unit.

Another feature of the article is that articles, definite or indefinite, are traditionally considered to form a separate part of speech. V. L. Kaushanskaya in her book “The Grammar of the English Language” specifies the article as a structural part of speech. In E. M. Gordon’s book “A Grammar of Present-Day English” we also meet the notion of a structural word as the linguist gives the following definition of the article: “The article is a structural word specifying the noun”.

According to these two definitions we can define the second feature of the article – it is a structural word.

Judging upon the definitions given by the different linguists and the dictionaries listed above we can draw a conclusion and deduce a general definition for the article that would include all its features: An article is a structural part of speech, which is combined with a noun to determine it.

1.2 Articles in English

There are two articles in Modern English which are called the indefinite and the definite article. The absence of the article, which may be called the zero article, also specifies the noun and has significance.

The indefinite article has the forms a and an. The form a is used before words beginning with a consonant sound (a book, a table, a door). The form an is used before words beginning with a vowel sound (an apple, an hour, an aim). The article is pronounced [ə], [ən]; when stressed it is pronounced [eı], [æn].

1.2.1 The Definite Article in English

The definite article has one graphic form the, which is pronounced in two ways: [∂ı:] before a vowel sound [∂ı: ΄æpl] and [∂ə] before a consonant sound [∂ə ΄pen]. This article is used before nouns in the plural, as well as before nouns in the singular number.

1.2.2 The History of the Definite Article in English

Examining the definite article by M.A. Gashina’s book “English Grammar Higher School” we find some words about its history. The linguist says that the definite article the is a weakened form of the Old English demonstrative pronoun se (nominative se; dative ΄þæm; accusative ΄þone, etc.) which in Old English, besides the function of a demonstrative, had also the function of the definite article. The form “se” was in the masculine gender, “seo”- feminine, and “þæt”- neuter. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_articles source gives the information that in Middle English all these kinds of the demonstrative pronoun had merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the. It says that in Middle English the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter Thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive form came to resemble a у shape. As such the use of a у with an e above it as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James “Version of the Bible” in places such as Romans 15:29 or in the Mayflower Compact. The article was never pronounced with a у sound, even so written.

One of the linguists who were interested in the history of the English language - Barbara M. H. Strang, in her book “A History of English” states that the definite article was by 1170 only marginally related to the pronoun system. It had two distinct types throughout the period. In most parts of the country it was indeclinable þe, later the, or at the very most it varied between singular þe and plural þa. However, in the S and SW Mid it was declinable, with three genders in the singular and up to four cases. Where it had declinable forms they were the same as those for the ‘further’- demonstrative, that, since, in fact, they had originated in a special use of that form. The forms set out below were in some parts only demonstrative, in others they had double function; they are presented for reference-purposes, but they tend to suggest far more differentiation than most speakers knew. In the masc sg there were four forms: se, subj; þene, þane, acc; þan, þene, Kt þa(Kentish), later þo, dat (i.e., some speakers reduced the case-system to three even here). The fem sg usually had three forms: seo, si (SW and SE) subj; þa, later þo, enclitic to, oblique; þer, þære, gen. The neuter (like the 3rd person pronoun) had the same form for subj and direct obj þet or þat (according to dialect, but a tended to invade e-areas, as a weak form, or by internal borrowing, or both); the dat was usually þan, the gen þes or þas . In the plural all the genders had subj-obj þa, later þo, dat or oblique þan, gen þere.

The linguist emphasizes that after the very beginning of Middle English period, and outside Kt, case and gender distinctions , in article or demonstrative, occur only patchily, and then in circumstances showing that their historical functions have been forgotten. Otherwise, except for some persistence of plural tho, the definite article has become fully indeclinable by the end of the period.

As the definite article comes from the demonstrative pronoun of Old English it had preserved its demonstrative meaning that is still felt in such expressions as nothing of the (that) kind; at the (that) time; under the (those) circumstances; for the (that) purpose; The lady (= this lady) is waiting to see you.

Thus we can draw the conclusion that the definite article takes its origin from the Old English demonstrative pronoun se which was declinable in conformity with the gender, number and case of the noun it modified. Later in the Middle English it changed into þe with nouns in singular and þa with nouns in plural that became the in the Present-day English. The definite article retained its demonstrative meaning throughout all the periods of the English language development and nowadays its first and most important meaning is one of a demonstrative.

1.3 The Article in French Grammar

The etymology of the word “article” comes from Latin articulus and it means “small member”.

According to the French linguist Maurice Grevisse article is a word placed before the noun in order to mark that this noun is taken in its complete or incomplete determined meaning; it also serves to indicate the gender and the number of the noun it precedes.

N.B. Grevisse also says in his book “Le bon usage” that the article can be arranged among the adjectives as it serves to introduce the noun.

Thus, comparing with English we see that in the French grammar the article is also placed before the noun. It also has the function of a determiner. But, as distinct from the English article the article in French besides its determination of the noun semantically has the function of determining it from the grammatical point of view. It serves to indicate the noun’s gender and number. Hence it appears the first difference between the articles in English and in French.

There are two types of articles in French: definite(défini) and indefinite(indéfini).

Note: it is distinguished often the third type of the article in French – the partitif article, but this one can be relevant by its forms to the definite article and by its meaning it can be belonged to the group of the indefinite article.

So, we find out the second difference between the articles of the two languages. The English and the French Languages have three types of articles and we saw that the first two types coincide in their names: definite and indefinite. Speaking about the third type of articles in both languages it should be noted that in English it is called zero article and in written speech it is rendered by the absence of the article but in French it is called the partitif article which has four forms but we will speak about them in greater length in 1.3.3

1.3.1 The Definite Article in French

Making the parallel between the English and the French grammar we can observe that in the French language articles agree with nouns they determine in gender and number.

The French definite articles (l’article défini) are:

le – with nouns in masculine, singular, le garçon;

la – with nouns in feminine, singular, la fille;

l’ – with nouns in masculine and feminine in the singular form

beginning with a vowel or mute h, l’arbre, l’ère, l’habitude, l’homme;

les – with nouns in masculine and feminine in the plural form, les enfants. The History of the French Definite Article

Speaking about the French definite article one should know that it was a roman innovation. It came from Latin ille(masculine) and illa(feminine) which served as adjectives and demonstrative pronouns as well. In ancient France only the proclitic form of them was preserved that lost early their first syllable and became unstressed.

(il)li>li − Nominative case, masculine, singular

(il)lu(m)>lo was used till the end of the XIth c. and then deafened in le − Objective case, masculine, singular

illī>li, illos>los soon was replaced by les − masculine, plural;

illa>la − feminine, singular;

illas>les − feminine, plural.

The French definite article retains a long time the demonstrative and the determinative meanings:

e.g.: Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne. (Rol.,3)

Jusqu'à la mer il conquist la terre hautaine.

He conquered the lordly land till the sea.

This is an example of the French article’s agreement with the noun in gender, number and case; at the same time the article determines the noun being used as ancient demonstrative: “la mer” means “this sea”= ‘the sea’.

So, we notice that the development of the French language was influenced by Latin which already had some notions of gender, number and case. It should be mentioned that from the previous times the French definite article had the forms of masculine and feminine. It had differentiations between singular and plural forms. Apparently the French article had the same meaning of a demonstrative.

Since English and French are two languages from different linguistic families they were developed differently. The articles have different origins. That is why there are many differences in their characteristics.

Nevertheless, both, the English definite article and the French definite article, take their origin from the demonstrative pronoun retaining the demonstrative meaning till nowadays. Article élidé

One of the forms of the definite article in French is used with the apostrophe (l’) and has its own name article élidé (fused article). It is used only with nouns that begin with a vowel or mute h in singular. The definite articles le, la lose their vowels in such cases and take the apostrophe – l’, e.g. l’arbre, l’ère, l’homme, l’habitude. The Fused Definite Article

The second type of the French definite article is named article contracté which can be translated into English as the fused article. It comes from the usage of the definite articles in masculine, singular le and plural les with the prepositions à and de. The preposition à has the meaning of direction and the preposition de has the meaning of possession. When these prepositions are used before the definite articles they merge with each other and make new forms, preserving their meanings. The forms of the fused article are:

à + le = au Je donne le livre au professeur. (I give the book to the teacher).

à + les = aux Je donne les livres aux élèves. (I give the books to the pupils).

de + le = du le livre du professeur (the teacher’s book).

de + les = des les livres des élèves (the pupils’ books).

We can presume that the first two forms of the fused article can be translated into English by the form of the Dative case and are rendered by the preposition to. The forms du, des are translated into English by the Genitive case and take the form of ´s and having the same meaning of possession as in French.

1.3.2 The Indefinite Article in French

The French indefinite articles (l’article indéfini) are:

un – with nouns in masculine, singular, un garçon;

une – with nouns in feminine, singular, une fille;

des – with nouns in masculine and feminine, plural form, des enfants.

1.3.3 The Partial Article (article partitif)

The french partial article has three forms:

du – with nouns in masculine, singular, du garçon;

de la – with nouns in feminine, singular, de la fille ;

des – with nouns in masculine and feminine, in the plural form, des enfants.

The “partitif” article does not have its exact equivalent in English. It is used with mass nouns such as water, to indicate only a part or a non-specific quantity of it. As in the following example :

French : Je voudrais du lait et du pain.

English : I would like some milk and some bread.

French: Voulez-vous du café ?

English: Do you want (some) coffee?

We may assume that the French partial article corresponds to the English indefinite pronoun “some”.

As we mostly are interested in the definite article we will analyze and compare only its forms, its origins in both languages. Scrutinizing the definite articles of the English and the French languages we can find significant differences in their forms. First of all one should remember that the English definite article takes its origin from the Old English demonstrative pronoun se, whereas the French definite article has the Latin origin and also comes from the demonstrative pronoun (ille). Another difference is that the English definite article has one graphic form the,and the French definite article has four forms: le, la, l’, les. One of the most important differences in the definite article between the two languages is that the French definite articles agree in gender and number with the noun they belong to, which is not observed in English. The French definite article besides its four forms le, la, l’, les has another type of article that also belongs to the group of the definite article – article contracté which also has four forms (au, aux, du, des).

2. Contrastive Study of the Definite Article’s Usage in English and


Before speaking about the usage of the definite article with class nouns in English and French languages we would like to present first of all the functions of the definite article in both languages.

2.1 The Functions of the Definite Article in English

For revealing the functions of the English definite article we consulted the books of the following linguists as M.Ia. Blokh, E.M. Gordon and Barmina and Verkhovskaya. After studying Barmina and Verkhovskaya’s theory on the article we can ascertain some functions of the definite article. According to the linguists it can have:

·                   the morphologic function that consists in serving as a formal indicator of the noun: the presence of the article signals that what follows is a noun.

·                   syntactic function. The definite article may connect sentences within a text by correlating a noun it modifies with some word or a group of words in the previous context. In the example below the definite article has the connecting function.

John has brought a book. The book is interesting.

M. Ia. Blokh mentions that the definite article expresses the identification or individualization of the referent of the noun: the use of this article shows that the object denoted is taken in its concrete, individual quality. E. M. Gordon also mentions the idea of individualization. He distinguishes the following functions of the definite article.

When used with countable nouns, either concrete or abstract, the English definite article has two distinct functions:

1) It may be used with singular and plural nouns to show that the noun denotes a particular object (a thing, a person, an animal or an abstract notion) or a group of objects as distinct from the others of the same kind. In other words, the definite article serves to single out an object or several objects from all the other objects of the same class. This function is called the individualized function of the definite article.

e. g. The car stopped. Paul got out and stretched himself.

2) The definite article may also have the generic function with countable nouns.

With nouns in the singular it serves to indicate that the noun becomes a composite image of the class.

e.g. The tiger has always had the reputation of being a man-eater.

With uncountable nouns, the function of the definite article can be called restricting.

The definite article restricts the material denoted by a concrete uncountable noun to a definite quantity, portion or to a definite locality (a); it also restricts the abstract notion expressed by an uncountable noun to a particular instance (b).

e.g. a) As we came out into the cold damp air, she shivered.

b) The work seemed to consist chiefly on interviewing young women for jobs in department stores.

We are mostly concerned in the functions of the definite article with countable nouns. Thus, we learned that the definite article has two functions with countable nouns: individualized and generic functions. In the first case it distinguishes one object from the others of the same kind, in the second it serves to present an object instead of the whole class as compared to other classes.

2.2 The functions of the definite article in French

1) Speaking about the French definite article it should be known that it serves to indicate a specific noun.

Je vais à la banque. Voici le livre que j'ai lu.

I'm going to the bank. Here is the book I read.

Thus the first function of the French definite article is demonstrative function.

2) Besides its demonstrative meaning it has a possessive meaning:

Alexandre se frotta les yeux avec le revers du pouce, et porta les mains à ses reins. (R. Merle)

Alex wiped his eyes with the back of his thumb, and put his hands on his loins.

From this example is clearly seen that the French use the definite article instead of possessive pronouns in English.

3) the meaning of generalization.

e.g. L’homme est plutôt un animal bienveillant quand il n’est ni jaloux ni inquiet.(A. Maurois) – Man is rather a well-wishing animal when he is neither jealous nor anxious.

We can observe the difference in using the definite article in English and French. In French sentence we have the noun used with the definite article in its generalizing function. The noun in English variant is not used with the definite article as in this case the noun man has a generic sense and no article is used.

4) distributive meaning.

e.g. … Nous ne pouvons vous racheter cela à plus de deux cents francs le mètre .

We can’t buy it more than two hundreds francs per meter.

The definite article used in French sentence is translated by the term per in English with the meaning of each.

5) It can indicate a usual fact that is repeated regularly.

e.g. Comme ça doit vous assommer de vous habiller devant elle, le matin.

Thus you have to assume that you have to dress up before her every morning.

In this example le matin has the meaning of every morning that is why we translate it in English with the indefinite adjective every.

6) Before cardinal numerals it can designate approximation in the meaning of “about”. This refers to the cases when the definite article precedes such nouns as heure (hour), ans, années (years), mois (month), etc.

e.g. Elle avais un visage si clair, un peau si tendre ; elle était bien jolie dans sa robe rose et menue, elle pouvait avoir dans les huit ans.

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