Sunday, March 12, 2023

That Dastardly Word "The"

My poor Greek students. Recently I had them learn the word for "the" in Greek. 

It has 24 forms. Yes, 24! I had to explain to them that, well, European languages seem to have a fetish for articles, unlike, say, Mandarin, which has none. Now, if you've ever studied German, all of this will be familiar to you. German, like Greek, has three genders, which means that articles can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. They can also be singular or plural, and they either be in one of the four so-called "cases": nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Moreover, in German, all the other words you use with the article have these things as well. 

Believe it or not, at one time English had different forms of "the" for the three genders. How, then, did all of these forms become simply "the"? Nobody knows for sure. The most popular theory is that it happened during the Middle English period (1100-1400). People in Britain then had two languages around  -- Old English and Old Norse. Both of these languages had genders, but quite often the genders didn't match up. It's sort of like "apple" is masculine German but feminine in French. It's thought that this confusion was enough for people to stop bothering about gender at all. I recall a similar phenomenon while traveling in northern Germany, where "Plattdeutsch" (Low German) is spoken. Plattdeutsch is kind of a cross between German and English. As a result, you might expect it to handle the word "the" a bit uniquely. This is, in fact, the case. Plattdeutsch has just one article for both masculine and feminine words. It is de. If something is neuter, you say dat, though you can also say de. So it's de Appel, de Beer, and dat/de Water. (High German: Der Apfel, die Birne, das Wasser.) 


I tried to reassure my dear students that learning the gender of words in Greek (or any other language) is not necessarily a nightmare but just something you do as you go along. Your brain can handle it. My native English has no genders, but the other languages I know either have three (Greek, Latin, German, Dutch) or two (French, Spanish). Currently, I'm teaching myself Hawaiian. In Hawaiian, you use both ke and ka to translate "the." Ka is the most commonly used form (about 80 percent of words). This means that if you have to guess which form to use, guess ka. Ke is used before words that begin with these letters:

  • k
  • a
  • e
  • o

All other words take ka (with very few exceptions). Here are some examples:

  • ke akua (the god)
  • ke kanaka (the man, human)
  • ke lani (the heaven)
  • ka wahine (the woman)
  • ka 'ohana (the family)
  • ke kupuna (the grandparent)
  • ka makua (the parent)
  • ke keiki (the child)
  • ke aloha (the love)
  • ke kula (the school) 
  • ka aina (the land)
  • ke eia (the life)
  • ke kai (the sea)
  • ka mokupuni (the island)
  • ka pono (the righteousness) 
  • ka hale (the house)

Our state motto is (as kids we could recite this by heart):

Ua mau ke eia o ka aina i ka pono. 

Literally: "Is perpetuated the life of the land in the righteousness" = "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness." Lovely, don't you think? 

So how do you make Hawaiian nouns plural? Interestingly, while English nouns change their form to make a plural, Hawaiian nouns do not. Instead, both ke and ka change to . Thus ke keiki (the child) becomes nā keiki (the children). Otherwise, you can't tell whether a noun is singular or plural in Hawaiian except by the context. When I was growing up, I sometimes heard someone say in church, "Now the keikis will be dismissed to children's church." But that's not exactly correct. You just need to say, "Now the keiki will be dismissed to children's church." Here's another example that you might be familiar with if you've ever been to Kauai. "The Nā Pali overlook is one of the most visited sights on that island." Pali is the Hawaiian word for "cliff." So what would Nā Pali mean? That's right! You akamai! 

Okay, that will have to do for now. Gotta go and check up on the sheep -- or is it nā hipa/ta probata/die Schafe/las ovejas/het schaap/les moutons?????

Baa bye!