French- origins of partitive article

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Beachxhair, Aug 28, 2013.

  1. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    I'm very curious about the origins of the French partitive construction, as partitive noun phrases demand the adverbial pronoun en, even though the noun phrases are semantically the direct object of the verb in many cases. (Eg. 'je mange des fraises', j'en mange is obligatory.)

    A lecturer at my university once told me that the partitive forms du, de la and des are not related to the preposition de, but are best thought of as their own kind of expression, as determiners with a meaning close to some in English.

    What are the origins of the partitive article - which Latin words did it derive from? How did its usage become obligatory in French (in French, you must say je mange des fraises, whereas in English and Spanish respectively, we can simply say I'm eating strawberries and Como fresas).

    Thanks :)
  2. CapnPrep Senior Member

    That's the best way to think of them as a learner of French, but "not related to the preposition de" is clearly nonsense from an etymological viewpoint.
    De and ille, of course.
    From a functional point of view, determiners became generally obligatory in French as number marking became silent on most nouns and adjectives. Similarly, subject pronouns became obligatory as conjugated forms became less and less distinctive. Both of these processes have the same phonetic origin: the loss of final consonants, which started around the end of the 12th century (but continued for a very long time). See the following thread for more about that:
    Final consonants in French
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2013
  3. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    You say « je mange des fraises », but « je ne mange pas de fraises ». So obviously there is a logical connection between « de » and « des ».
  4. olaszinho Senior Member

    Central Italian
    In Italian we can say:" mangiamo delle fragole a primavera" using the partitive article ( we eat some strawberries in spring)
    but "non mangiamo fragole d'estate" (we do not eat any strawberries in summer) without the preposition "di".
    Nonetheless, Italian still retains marking number for nouns and adjectives.
    In my opinion, the above explanation may be valid for French but not for the Italian language...
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  5. CapnPrep Senior Member

    The explanation was about why articles/determiners became obligatory in French, not about the development of the partitive articles specifically. And the argument remains valid for Italian: since plural marking is generally distinctive, there is no reason for the article to become obligatory in plural noun phrases.
  6. Nino83 Senior Member

    As other members said the partitive article derives from the preposition de plus the definite articles ille/illa.
    In French their use is necessary because there's no distinction, in pronunciation, between singular and plural nouns.
    In Italian you can also say "mangia fragole tutto l'anno".
    The "real" partitive article is the singular. In the plural form it compensate for the lack of the plural indefinite article (in French and in Italian there are only singular un/une and un/uno/una while in Spanish and Portuguese there are both singular un/una/un/uma and plural unos/unas/uns/umas).
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2013
  7. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    I had always thought that the literal translation of the partitive article was 'of the _____', eg, des fraises, of/from the strawberries; 'je mange des fraises' --> literally, I eat from/of the strawberries, which seemed quite logical to me, since you're eating from a whole, you're eating a part of it, from it. What confuses me is that the preposition de in du, de la, des suggests that morphologically, the object of the verb is indirect (and there is no past participle agreement in the perfect tenses with en, the pronoun replacing the partitives), even though semantically, the object of the verb is direct. Is a partitive noun phrase analysed as an indirect or direct object?
  8. Nino83 Senior Member

    Excuse me but past participle can agree in number and gender with en.
    J'ai mangé des fraises. J'en ai mangé(es).
    Ho mangiato delle fragole. Ne ho mangiate.
    It's a direct object.

    "Depuis 1976, un arrété ministériel a officiellement autorisé l'accord.
    Des cerises, j'en ai mangées.

    Most grammarians advise against the agreement of past participle (except if there is a relative pronoun) not because there is an indirect object (the object is direct) but because en is a neuter invariable pronoun, and it represents une partie de ce dont on parle.
    In Italian the agreement is mandatory when ne represents a plural direct object (but in this case ne isn't a real partitive but it's used as a plural indefinite article).
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2013
  9. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    This must be why I've always been taught (even now at university) that past participle agreement with en is incorrect, even though the agreement is technically allowed.
  10. Nino83 Senior Member

    From a morphological point of view you're right (it derives from de + ille) but the meaning is a piece of/a bit of/a part of (un pezzo di/una parte di). If we use this literal translation it's clear that there is a direct object.
    In my opinion it seems that we removed the first word (piece/bit/part) so that remained only the preposition of (the), but the meaning remained the same.

    For the particle en (ne) I don't know if there are the same meanings in French.
    In Italian it means:
    - moto da luogo complement (from there): es. me ne sono andato (da lì, from there) je m'en suis allé. In this case past participle doesn't agree in number and gender
    - genitive case (of it, of that): es. Hai letto il libro? Ne ho letto solo le prime pagine (del libro, di ciò). Did you read the book? I only read the first pages of it. Also in this case the participle doesn't agree.
    - plural direct object: Hai mangiato le mele? Ne ho mangiate tante (mele). Did you eat apples? I ate a lot of apples. This is the only case when the past participle agrees in number and gender in Italian.
    In Standard French there's not agreement. J'en ai mangé.

    I think that Spanish and Portuguese didn't need the partitive article because they have a plural definite article, so they didn't develop one.

    Spanish: Como una manzana/unas manzanas/algunas manzanas
    Italian: Mangio una mela/delle mele/alcune mele
    French: Je mange une pomme/des pommes/quelques pommes

    There's no difference in spoken language between quelque and quelques (alcuna/alcune in Italian, alguna/algunas in Spanish) so French needs a partitive.

    All this in my humble opinion.
  11. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    That's interesting. Does anyone know whether there is any evidence that, in an earlier stage of the French language, that 'first word', une partie, was attested? Around when did it start to disappear and why?
  12. Nino83 Senior Member

    Precicely it means "un poco di" "un peu de".
  13. CapnPrep Senior Member

    It has always been possible to say "a part/a lot/some/enough of X" etc., and it remains possible. Some authors (e.g. Foulet 1965) believe that the partitive article developed directly out of this structure somehow, but there are several problems with this hypothesis (see e.g. a number of articles by Anne Carlier).
  14. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    This isn't a direct answer to your question, but other languages show a development from the meaning "of/from" to a partitive meaning "(some amount) of". For example, in Finnish, the partitive case is formed with the suffix -ta, which I think was originally an ablative suffix (the ablative corresponding roughly to the meaning "from"). As in French, the partitive plural in Finnish has (with some complications) developed into an indefinite plural.
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2013
  15. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    The articles by Anne Carlier addressed my question exactly, thank you. I just have a question about the 'A-over-A principle', mentioned in the article From preposition to article.
    ("In the context of this study, we simply use the ‘A-over-A’ principle as a diagnostic device for the prepositional status of de when it is followed by a NP.") What is the A-over-A principle, and how does it show whether a word is a preposition or not?

    Thank you :)
  16. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Carlier is referring to the fact that French generally does not allow extraction out of prepositional phrases. So if you can extract something out of a phrase introduced by de, then this de is not an ordinary preposition. I wouldn't worry too much about the actual A-over-A principle, but if you are interested, you can read Kayne (1975) for French (as cited by Carlier), but then read section 2 of this article by Paul Postal:
    Two Case Studies of Chomsky's Play Acting at Linguistics

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