Jan
16
2012

Why does Spanish have so many little words for “a”, “the”, “this” etc?

Learning Spanish Words (photo by Ken Banks - CC-BY)

In English, there is only one definite article. If you want to refer to a particular book, it’s “the” book. If you’re referring to more than one book, it’s “the” books.

In Spanish it’s not so simple. Nouns, articles and adjectives must “agree in number”. If one of them is plural, all of them must be. (The concept of “agreement” does occur in English, although not very often. For example, to identify one book, we say this book, but to identify more than one book we must say these books.)

Additionally, in Spanish, every noun has a “gender”: it is either masculine or feminine. Because of the need in Spanish to have “agreement in gender”, the associated articles must also be masculine or feminine. Many adjectives also have masculine and feminine forms. Although Spanish is generally a straightforward language, the proliferation of basic words does add to the challenge of learning Spanish.

The indefinite article

In English, the indefinite article is “a”, or “an” if the article is followed by a vowel sound. Spanish has two indefinite articles:

  • un for masculine nouns (un libro—a book)
  • una for feminine nouns (una cervesa—a beer)

The definite article

In English, the definite article is “the”. Spanish has the following definite articles:

  • la for feminine singular nouns (la manzana—the apple)
  • las for feminine singular nouns (las palomas—the doves)
  • el for masculine singular nouns (el desayuno—the breakfast)
  • los for masculine plural nouns (los gigantes—the giants)

Spanish also has two contractions, to replace awkward pronunciations:

  • al instead of a el (al centro—to the center)
  • del instead of de el (del dia—of the day)

“This/that” and “these/those” used as adjectives

In English, the singular adjectives are “this” (for things that are close) and “that” (for things that are distant). The corresponding plurals are “these” and “those”.

The Spanish equivalents are:

  • esta for feminine singular nouns (esta salida—this exit)
  • este for masculine singular nouns (este libro—this book)
  • estas for feminine plural nouns (estas peines—these combs)
  • estos for masculine plural nouns (estos zapatos—these shoes)
  • esa for feminine singular nouns (esa chica—that girl)
  • ese for masculine singular nouns (ese chico—that boy)
  • esas for feminine plural nouns (esas chicas—those girls)
  • esos for masculine plural nouns (esos chicos—those boys)

Spanish also has an extra set of adjectives for things that are even more distant, or are far in the past:

  • aquella for feminine singular nouns (aquella chica—that girl in the distance)
  • aquel for masculine singular nouns (aquel chico—that boy in the distance)
  • aquellas for feminine plural nouns (aquellas chicas—those girls in the distance)
  • aquellos for masculine plural nouns (aquellos chicos—those boys in the distance)

“This/that” and “these/those” used as pronouns

When these words are used as pronouns, there is no adjacent noun. In Spanish, gender-specific forms are used if the noun can be ascertained from the context, otherwise a neuter form is available:

  • ésta for the feminine singular (ésta es la salida—this is the exit)
  • éste for the masculine singular (éste es el libro—this is the book)
  • esto for the neuter (¿qué es esto?—what is this?)
  • éstas for the feminine plural (éstas son las peines—these are the combs)
  • éstos for the masculine plural (éstos son los zapatos—these are the shoes)
  • ésa for the feminine singular (ésa es Mary—that’s Mary)
  • ése for the masculine singular (ése es John—that’s John)
  • eso for the neuter (¿qué es eso?—what is that?)
  • ésas for the feminine plural (ésas son las hijas de Mary—those are Mary’s daughters)
  • ésos for the masculine plural (ésos son los hijos de Mary—those are Mary’s sons)

The pronoun form also has a version for more distant things:

  • aquélla for the feminine singular
  • aquél for the masculine singular
  • aquello for the neuter
  • aquéllas for the feminine plural
  • aquéllos for the masculine plural

The accents may be omitted from the pronoun forms when there is no possibility of ambiguity.

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