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Some curious uses of "the"

Posted by Smokey stover on January 14, 2004

In Reply to: Some curious uses of "the" posted by pdianek on January 14, 2004

: : : : Why there are "the"s here?
: : : : 1.Dolly the sheep
: : : : 2.Alexander the Great
: : : : Do you have other examples of this kind?

: : : : And
: : : : 3.In "Rain Music", there is a sentence saying:
: : : : "His soft, black curls rest against the white of the pillow..."
: : : : "the white of the pillow?" Why not use "the white pillow"?

: : : : thanks!

: : : I am not sure how to answer this. In the first example, the adjective is part of the name. Alexander THE Great sounds better than Great Alexander. Plus "the" means "the Alexander who is great as opposed to the other Alexanders." Like Alexander the Not-So-Great.

: : : "White of the pillow" just sounds prettier, more poetic than "white pillow."

"The," being a definite article, is used to make things more definite, as well as being a weak demonstrative. It is useful as such not only in Romance languages but also in Germanic languages. Latin, of course, had no definite article as such; but in "Late Latin," when syntax based on inflection was being replaced by syntax based on word order, demonstrative pronouns started appearing where we moderns would expect a definite article, and turned into what are now called definite articles in the Romance languages. I believe early German underwent something like the same transformation, getting definite articles out of demonstrative pronouns. In the "Dark Ages," when Latin was being transformed into modern Romance languages and modern Germanic languages like English, Dutch, Danish and the like were becoming more and more different from German, the problem of identifying specific people (and sheep) was solved in more than one way. Russian, for instance, which still does without definite articles, identifies specific people using patronymics, as is also the case in Iceland. Another means was to tack on an attribute. Harold the Fairhaired (as opposed to Harold Bluetooth), Pepin the Short, John the Bold (Jean le Temeraire), Charles the Fat, Charles the Bald. Obviously in many of the most conspicuous cases, a dynasty of rulers is involved, in which numerous individuals have the same given name. And equally obviously, the definite article was used most often when the attribute was an adjective or a noun "in apposition," so to speak, like Attila the Hun. If the attribute were something else, the definite article might be omitted. James Briggs, for instance, might mean "that James who lives near the bridge." Or under the bridge. Or who came from Bruges along with William the Conqueror's army. In the case of Dolly the sheep, we wish to distinguish her from Dolly the goat or Dolly Parton. As regards people, our use of "family names," or the name of the "gens" in classical Roman times, is not the only way to distinguish people from one another, and is not universal. Moreover, I believe that in some parts of the world the adoption of "last names" was a consequence of invasion by, or other contact with, Europeans or other cultures with similar naming conventions. In any case, this use of "the" is the correct, classical use of a definite article.

The black of his hair against the white of the pillow. As a previous contributor has said, it is this difference which matters to the narrator, and the structure of the phrase, "the white of the pillow," gives the proper emphasis to make that clear. It is not the pillow, but the white, that counts. An interesting question is how the narrator knows this, since she reveals so little else about David. SS

: : : Anyone else got any insight?

: : Does this sentence help: 'Dolly, the sheep among the animals
: : in the barn, was cloned.' Dropping "the" won't yield a sentence.

: How about this: "Dolly the sheep" differentiates that particular Dolly from others who are human -- e.g., Dolly Parton -- but gives it an individuality, almost a personality, that the phrase "the sheep, Dolly" doesn't contain.

: I cannot recall how the German language handles descriptions like this, but they are common in the Romance languages ("Louis le Roi" = "Louis the King"), and French was for many years -- post-1066 AD -- the official and upscale language of what is now the UK.

: "Against the white of the pillow" is more visual and evocative, thus more poetic.