Cadence and aesthetics: weird things that change articles in unexpected ways in romance languages

image by: Daniel Cañibano / Unsplash

As a aspiring polyglot and amateur linguist, sometimes I find curious similarities between grammar rules in different languages. One in particular often surprises students when they first come across it, especially if their native language has no such thing (for instance, Portuguese) or if it uses no articles at all (as is the case of many Slavic languages, such as Russian).

When you learn other languages, one of the first things you learn is that nouns sometimes have a different gender than the corresponding one in your native language. So you have to memorize the gender of nouns and practice a lot. You also learn that you have to use articles, pronouns, and often adjectives in accordance to the noun’s gender (which is something unusual for English speakers).

Then you come across things like

El agua está fría.

in Spanish, which means “the water is cold”. Here the noun “agua” (water) is feminine, which is in accordance with the feminine adjective “fría” (cold). But the article employed here “el” (the) is masculine, instead of the feminine la. How come?


Mon amie est intelligente.

in French, meaning my (female) friend is smart. Likewise, the noun “amie” (friend) and the adjective “intelligente” (smart) are feminine. Here, the possessive pronoun “mon” (my) is masculine, instead of the feminine ma. Very puzzling for French beginners indeed.

What gives?

Ice cubes dropped in clear drinking cup of water.

I don't care which gender the water is, I just want a glass of it, cold (photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash).

Morphing genders for sounding “right”

For Spanish speakers, “la agua” wouldn’t sound right, and for Francophones, “ma amie” sounds ugly for some reason. Every language has their own cadence and phonemes that don’t go well together and these are a couple of examples of that. They tend to avoid joining vowels in adjacent words so you’d say

Mon école est nouvelle.

(my school is new), with the masculine possessive pronoun “mon” instead of the feminine “ma” (my), even though “école” (school) is a feminine noun. However, if the next word does not start with a vowel, you should use “ma” instead:

Ma nouvelle école est incroyable.

(my new school is amazing).

Silhouette of a woman making a jump shot at a school corridor.

I don't know how cool this school is, but she certainly seems to be enthusiastic about it (photo by Mesh on Unsplash).

Many kinds of definite articles

Sometimes it’s not the gender of articles that changes because of the beginning of the next word, but a different type of article altogether.

Italian has different masculine definite articles for singular, “il” and “lo” (more if you count “l’ ”, which is an elision of either “lo” or “la”, the latter of which is feminine). For masculine plural, there are two: “i ” and “gli”. Whenever a masculine noun starts with a z, an s followed by a consonant or gn, as well as a few other less common consonant groups, you use “lo” for singular, and “gli” for plural. The latter is also used for plurals when the next word starts with a vowel.

For instance:

Gli animali sono grandi.

(the animals are large). If you arrange a word order such that the next word does not star with a vowel, you get to use the more common “i” for plural:

I grandi animali sono qui.

(the big animals are here).

A giraffe on Taronga Zoo looking at the Sydney Opera House.

The big animals are here and they seem to be fond of opera (photo by Thandy Yung on Unsplash).

If any other word starting with a vowel gets in the way, however, it’s time for “gli” again.

Gli altri animali sono qui.

(the other animals are here).

This has to do with the cadence in Italian language. Cadence is the way sounds in discourse create a certain rhythm. In Italian, vowel and consonant sounds tend to alternate with each other. So it would sound strange to have too many consonants or too many vowels lumped together.

Interestingly, though, this has not always been the case. Well known Italian writers have used the forms “il ” and “i ” in ways that would be considered incorrect today:

Nowadays we say with ease lo zio (the uncle), lo zappatore (the digger), uno spergiuro (a perjury), gli stemmi (the coat of arms), gli zeffiri (the Zephyr), gli zaini (the satchels), uno iettatore (a jester), etc., however famous writers have delivered: il zio (Cesari), il zappatore (Leopardi), un spergiuro (Berchet), i stemmi, i zeffiri (Foscolo), i zaini, un iettatore (D’Annunzio). A “centuries long” war has been waged between the two forms of the definite and indefinite articles before consonants: il or lo?, i or gli?, un or uno?

Corriere della sera – Dizionari: Il oppure lo? Si dice o non si dice?

The current rule in Italian language codes what sounds pleasant to Italian ears, something linguists call euphony.

It is remarkable how aesthetic reasons (i.e. euphony) tend to put many exceptions to the rules in languages. That happens not only in Romance languages, but is present in languages from other branches as well. In English, the rule for indefinite articles is to use a before consonants and an before vowels. However, if the first letter of the next word is a vowel that sounds like a consonant, a must be used instead. For example, since the u in “university” sounds like a y when pronounced, you don’t say “an university”, but “a university”.

In all, language learners will inevitably fall for the stumbling blocks of the exceptionalism of euphony and cadence when they first encounter them. On the other hand, the experience and strange feelings when finding them will also help remembering and internalizing these exceptions down the road, and after some practice they will feel natural before you know it.