Grammaticalization: Articles for Chinese?

This week in grad school class about Chinese grammar, we covered the topic of grammaticalization. Of interest to me was one paper in which the author made a case for the demonstrative pronoun 这 beginning to take on the role of definite article in Beijing dialect. In this usage, is pronounced “zhe” (neutral tone). The author also examined , and the same thing is not happening.

This made me think of English. We have the demonstrative pronouns “this, “that,” “these,” and “those.” Our definite article is “the.” Might “the” have evolved the same way? It seems almost the same… Just as 这 goes from fourth tone to neutral in the change, “this” perhaps lost its final consonant and the vowel was reduced to a schwa. Or actually, “the” could just be capturing the initial consonant sound of all four of those demonstrative pronouns. Does anyone know anything about the historical grammaticalization of English? I Googled it but didn’t find much.

The paper also talked about the development of an indefinite article (like “a” or “an” in English). The author explains that in Beijing dialect, 一个 is often shortened to 一, but is pronounced “yí” (second tone) rather than “yī” (first tone). It stays second tone because in 一个 the 一 has to be second tone due to Mandarin’s tone changes for 一. It’s not normal for that tone change to stick if you remove the reason for it, though. The author says this tone change sticks no matter what noun precedes it, and gives the examples of 一狮子, 一熟人, 一老外, 一耗子 (which demonstrate that the second tone sticks no matter which of the four tones follows it).

So it makes you wonder… if this trend in Beijing dialect becomes a rule, will it make it into Mandarin as a whole? How soon might students of Chinese have to learn the Chinese definite and indefinite articles?

The actual article goes into 11 pages of examples, as well as semantic and syntactic analysis. If you’re interested, it’s called 指示词“这”和“那”在北京话中的语法化 and it’s by 方梅, published in 2002.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Note: Etymonline seems to be contradicting itself by saying that Old English did not have demonstrative pronouns and that the‘s ancestor pe was the masculine form of the demonstrative pronoun that evolved into se after 950.

    Meanwhile back at the Gotham Bank, Batman and Robin are doing just fine with their Middle English: ‘”Take that,” said while delivering a blow, is recorded from c.1425.’

  2. So if Chinese develops definite and indefinite articles, perhaps eventually getting my students to remember how to use them in English might become less of a headache. Hooray!

  3. apprentice Says: May 17, 2007 at 10:00 am

    The author explains that in Beijing dialect, 一个 is often shortened to 一, but is pronounced “yí” (second tone) rather than “yī” (first tone)…the examples 一狮子, 一熟人, 一老外, 一耗子

    I suppose there’s a typo here: the change is from 1st tone to 4th tone instead of 2nd tone.

  4. I do not think that this change in the Beijing dialect will have any effect on Mandarin outside of Beijing. Standard putonghua is essentially a created language (as opposed from evolving naturally). Every region his its own take on it, which mainly comes from the area’s linguistic characteristics before Putonghua was put into place. For example, here in Fuzhou, some of the vocabulary (and an even greater deal) of the pronunciation of the Mandarin is influenced by Fuzhou hua. For example, when referring to a spoon, nobody in Fuzhou says 勺子, they say 调羹. The reason is because in Fuzhou hua the word used is 调羹and not 勺子. (I do not actually speak Fuzhou hua, I just asked about this). When Mandarin was put into place, Fuzhou people unconsciously selected to use the Mandarin word which coincided with their own native tongue rather than using the one which is more “standard.” Several other nuances common of Beijing Mandarin (the pronoun 咱们 comes to mind, are compeltely absent from Fuzhou Mandarin. While I have never specifically asked about this example, I would be willing to guess it is most likely because there is no 咱们 in Fuzhou hua. (Any Fuzhou ren to support or deny this?)

  5. apprentice,

    No, not a typo. The 一 is second tone, just as it is pronounced in 一个. We’re talking about 北京话 here, not 普通话.

  6. Huh? The 一 doesn’t change to a second tone in Putonghua when combined with 个?

    And regarding 咱们, whenever I hear Shanghai TV station announcers use 咱们 it sounds really fake to me, like they’re trying to fit into the TV announcer norm set by Beijing. But that’s just my impression as a ABCS.

  7. […] a post from John Sinosplice about an article he read in his studies which alleges 这, with a neutral tone instead of the […]

  8. Historically, the definite article in English developed the same way. se (m), seo (f), þæt (n) could mean both “the” and “that”. The neuter form is the ancestor of MnE “that”.

    “This” is from the neuter demonstrative þis, and “those” from þas (the nom/acc pl). These words are all etymologically related, and with initial þ- corresponding to the t- of the oblique cases of the definite article in Classical Greek and Sanskrit. In fact, both those languages (barring slight differences in Greek) share the same pattern of s- in the nominative and t- elsewhere.

    Blake, MnE “the” is actually from OE se by the analogical extension of þ- from the oblique cases (acc sg masc þone; gen sg masc/neut þæs etc.)

    This particular form of grammaticalisation is far from unusual. Think of the development of the definite article in the Romance languages where the source is (always?) Latin illis (m), illa (f) “that”.

    Also, the indefinite article is often derived from “one”. MnE “a(n)” is the low stress reflex of OE an; so, too, German; again, the Romance languages have all acquired indefinite articles from this source.

  9. 北京话, 普通话, doesn’t matter. 一 yi never changes to fourth tone. It’s always first or second.

    John can you give some examples of 這 as a definite article?

  10. OK I want to take that back. There may be some cases where yi uses fourth tone: this paper mentions three instances: 一隻,一門, 一碗. But I wonder if this is a Taiwan Mandarin feature or does it occur in the PRC as well? only the first example sounds ok to me if pronounced in fourth tone, but tomorrow I’ll see if I can get some Taiwanese colleagues to read them aloud.

  11. I think that 一 is always fourth tone when it precedes a second tone. Think about how people pronounce “怎么一回事”.

  12. PTH 一 is first tone in isolation or as a numeral, fourth tone in most other contexts, but second tone before a fourth tone. The standard dictionary note for 一 goes something like: “在第四声(去声)字前念第二声(阳平),如“一半”yíbàn;“一共”yígòng。在第一、二、三声(阴平、阳平、上声)字前念第四声(去声),如“一天”yìtiān;“一年”yìnián;“一点”yìdiǎn。” Other first-tone numbers share the change to second tone before a fourth (or in Dongbei, before a first as well). But this all is still a number + measure word, not the number-as-article + noun that John’s talking about.

    Pretty interesting. What kind of corpus is used for this sort of thing – is there a recording database of phone calls or television interviews that linguists can access?

  13. Jeffrey Says: May 20, 2007 at 4:04 am

    The larger subject here is about reference, of course. Here is my understanding of indefinite and definite reference in Chinese:

    Indefinite reference: one uses either numeral + classifier, like “yi ge,” or post-verbal position for indefinite reference.

    Definite reference: one uses either the demonstrative “nei” or pre-verbal position for definite reference.

    Here’s my question. If grammaticalization is occurring in the Chinese reference system, are the post-verbal and pre-verbal methods for signaling indefinite and definite reference, respectively, starting to decline due to increase in the usage of “yi ge” and “nei”?

  14. (I dont have an IME installed here so I can;t enter Hanzi, in an internet cafe).

    I can give you an example where yi breaks that rule… If for example, in clarifying a statement.

    Xiao Wang: Ni shibushi shuo ‘ di yi ge’?
    Xiao Fang: Bushi. Wo shuo ‘yi ge’! Bushi “di yi ge”.

    In my experience, the tones would be like this:

    Xiao Wang: Ni shibushi shuo ‘ di1yi1ge5’?
    Xiao Fang: Bushi. Wo shuo ‘yi4ge2’! Bushi “di4yi1ge4”.


  15. Uncle Angel,

    Thanks a lot for the info! It’s appreciated.

  16. @Prince Roy: Sorry, I don’t have the article handy right now.

    @zhwj: the data came from the author’s own transcribed recordings of the speech of Beijingers.

    @Jeffrey: Sorry, couldn’t tell ya. Beijing would be the place to go looking, though, apparently.

    @laolao: Hmmm, that’s interesting. I wonder if anything special does happen with the tones of 第一个 sometimes. I can’t say with authority. I don’t think that 一个 becomes yi4ge2, though, I think that the tones of yi2ge4 become even more pronounced.

  17. Some linguists have been tracking YIGE and providing evidence that Chinese is developing an indefinite marker. A paper is appearing soon, but you could email Prof. Liu Mei-chun for it.

    See link to abstract.

    Others are working on this too. And some are working on NAGE.

  18. Wyatt Ho Says: June 11, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Hi, would it be possible to post the details about the paper regarding zhe and na as a definite article? I am writing a paper that has something to do with this topic and would like to see if the paper you read can back my paper. Thank you

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