personal "a" in Spanish

ppaul562

Member
English - and the richness of her dialec
Hello,

Can anyone tell me the origin of personal "a". I have a feeling that it may be something to do with the Latin accusative case. Does anyone have any ideas?

Thanks

Paul
 
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  • Milton Sand

    Senior Member
    Español (Colombia)
    Hello:
    It has nothing to do with the Latin accusative case, of which function is the same as our indirect objects.

    Rather than a heritage from Latin or something, it has always seemed to me like a practical need. This is a morfologic mark of the Spanish animated direct object, which help us not to get confused by the Spanish license of changing the placements of the sentence's elements:

    El jefe controla a Carlos = A Carlos controla el jefe = Controla el jefe a Carlos = The boss controls Carlos.
    La máquina controla Carlos = Carlos operates the machine.
    La máquina controla a Carlos —> Carlos is operated by the machine.

    So it seems to have become a general rule for animated indirect objects regardless the subject being animated or not.

    I'm going to search the actual origin...

    Regards,
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    It has nothing to do with the Latin accusative case, of which function is the same as our indirect objects.
    Accusative is the case of the direct object. The case of the indirect object is dative.


    As you described, the "personal a" in Spanish is a direct object marker. So it would not be wrong to call it an accusative marker. It is derived from the Latin preposition ad (=to) which required an accusative. What is a bit confusing is that a, à has become an indirect object maker in other Romance languages (Fr: Je donne l'argent à Pierre).

     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The use of a(d) before a human direct object can be traced back to Vulgar Latin. No one is quite sure why the use arose, but the general explanation is that it was to avoid ambiguity. In Latin, word order was fairly free because case endings marked the syntactic relationship between nouns in a sentence. Presumably, as case endings were dropped word order became more important to determine the syntactic function of a noun, but obviously there was not an overnight switch from one to the other.

    The fact that, on the whole, there is less likely to be ambiguity when the direct object is inanimate would seem to explain why the use attaches to human (and animal) direct objects only. However, in earlier forms of Spanish examples can be found both of a being used for inanimate direct objects and not being used for human direct objects - indeed to an extent this still persists in modern Spanish.

    In modern Spanish, the use of a tends to be restricted to known human beings (and animals). In Busco al camarero que habla inglés you know the English speaking waiter exists. In Busco (a) un camarero que hable inglés you are uncertain of his existence.

    It should also be noted that, whilst it does not have anywhere near the same freedom as Latin, word order in Spanish is a little freer than in, say, French. Information considered important may come first and in relative clauses the verb may precede the subject. This means that a may also be used to designate an inanimate direct object to avoid ambiguity. In La regla que perjudica al asunto... we know for sure that the rule prejudices the affair, but in La regla que perjudica el asunto... we are uncertain whether the rule is prejudicing the affair, or the affair is prejudicing the rule.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    What is a bit confusing is that a, à has become an indirect object maker in other Romance languages (Fr: Je donne l'argent à Pierre).

    A is also an indirect object marker in Spanish. Conversely, a is used as a direct object marker in other RL, too, though much less frequently than in Spanish.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In Portuguese, when the direct object is a person, it may be preceded by a in certain circumstances:

    - in clitic doubling (used e.g. for emphasis): Eu levo-te a ti ao lugar de encontro, "I will drive you to the meeting place".
    - in certain constructions with an archaic flavour. Here's one I remember from Sunday school, the 1st commandment: Amar a Deus sobre todas as coisas, "To love God above all things".

    Although I couldn't come up with any French examples off the bat, I'm pretty sure that à is used before the DO at least in clitic doubling.
     

    Milton Sand

    Senior Member
    Español (Colombia)
    Accusative is the case of the direct object. The case of the indirect object is dative.

    As you described, the "personal a" in Spanish is a direct object marker. So it would not be wrong to call it an accusative marker. It is derived from the Latin preposition ad (=to) which required an accusative. What is a bit confusing is that a, à has become an indirect object maker in other Romance languages (Fr: Je donne l'argent à Pierre).
    Your so right! I was thinking in ablative case. I'm sorry, I'm going to fix it right away.

    Hulalessar's explanation was great.
    ;)
     
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    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    The fact that, on the whole, there is less likely to be ambiguity when the direct object is inanimate would seem to explain why the use attaches to human (and animal) direct objects only. However, in earlier forms of Spanish examples can be found both of a being used for inanimate direct objects and not being used for human direct objects - indeed to an extent this still persists in modern Spanish.
    The use of a removes other ambiguities too, most notably in reflexive sentences:

    Se mató al rey - the king was killed.
    Se mató el rey - the king killed himself.

    Which is somewhat off topic, so I will close.
     

    ppaul562

    Member
    English - and the richness of her dialec
    Many Thanks,
    Thanks you so very much. I had never considered the question before, but when my teacher said,
    "Well, that is just the way it is" it was like a red rag etc and I just had to find out.

    Paul

    The use of a(d) before a human direct object can be traced back to Vulgar Latin. No one is quite sure why the use arose, but the general explanation is that it was to avoid ambiguity. In Latin, word order was fairly free because case endings marked the syntactic relationship between nouns in a sentence. Presumably, as case endings were dropped word order became more important to determine the syntactic function of a noun, but obviously there was not an overnight switch from one to the other.

    The fact that, on the whole, there is less likely to be ambiguity when the direct object is inanimate would seem to explain why the use attaches to human (and animal) direct objects only. However, in earlier forms of Spanish examples can be found both of a being used for inanimate direct objects and not being used for human direct objects - indeed to an extent this still persists in modern Spanish.

    In modern Spanish, the use of a tends to be restricted to known human beings (and animals). In Busco al camarero que habla inglés you know the English speaking waiter exists. In Busco (a) un camarero que hable inglés you are uncertain of his existence.

    It should also be noted that, whilst it does not have anywhere near the same freedom as Latin, word order in Spanish is a little freer than in, say, French. Information considered important may come first and in relative clauses the verb may precede the subject. This means that a may also be used to designate an inanimate direct object to avoid ambiguity. In La regla que perjudica al asunto... we know for sure that the rule prejudices the affair, but in La regla que perjudica el asunto... we are uncertain whether the rule is prejudicing the affair, or the affair is prejudicing the rule.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    That's very likely. I was too tired to check. :eek:

    I wonder if anything unexpected happens in the languages of Italy...
     

    jazyk

    Senior Member
    Brazílie, portugalština
    In southern Italy you may hear Chiama a Marco (Call Marco). This isn't considered standard Italian, though.

    In Romanian you use the preposition pe, which is obligatory when the direct object is definite, as the Spanish a: O iubesc pe mama mea (I love my mom). Here the pronoun o (her) has to be duplicated before the verb, like saying (I) her love (to) mother my.
     

    Milton Sand

    Senior Member
    Español (Colombia)
    Hello again,
    I hope I won't say any burradas again. I did my homework (I hope I did it well). It is clear so far that the actual reason for Spanish to use the "personal a" (I won't insist in not calling it that way) is to avoid ambiguity. There's a bit more to it; this is what I've been told, which somehow confirms Ppaul562's suspictions and what Brend and Hulalessar told us:

    Latins (at least late Latins) used to avoid ambiguity too, when speaking, by including prepositions to the case's declension of a noun. The declension could be different from the corresponding one; for instance, "rosae color" (the rose's color) could be said "de rosa color", using the preposition "de" (from) with the noun's ablative declension "rosa" instead of the genitive declension "rosae". But this is not what we want to know right now…

    Accusative and dative cases were sometimes helped (in non-formal speech) by the preposition "ad" (towards) —sometimes "in" (towards, into), only for dative—, both using the accusative declination. Hence the Spanish 'habit'.

    Ancient Spanish laguage used this resource for human DO’s, specially if they were names. This usage was gradually extended to almost any animated OD. But it was only during the Spanish Golden Age when the use of "a" introducing an animated known/specific DO became one of gramatical use.

    I hope all of that makes sense.

    I'll be back :cool:
     
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    Áristos

    Senior Member
    español (España)
    Sr. Sand, I take my hat off to you (again).
    That makes complete sense, and it's so well explained...

    Thanks for bringing back old memories of when I used to study Latin.

    Regards.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Sometimes explanations are difficult to find. One just has to accept that things are the way they are. One may just as well ask why in English no preposition is needed to show an indirect object, as in:

    Give John the book

    and then go on to ask why, if you do use to, the indirect object has to come after the direct object:

    Give the book to John
     

    ppaul562

    Member
    English - and the richness of her dialec
    My first thread, and I am amazed at the number of informed and interesting people who have taken an interest.

    So, the answer appears to be, that as latin moved away from its cultural and literary home, it became less inflected; the lack of case endings leading to ambiguity. The construction that I refer to as "personal a" and others, were used to restore clarity.

    Homo feminam amat
    Hominem femina amat
    (hope that is right, I last looked at latin almost half a century ago)
    It is all quite clear until you remove the case endings and then you really don't know where you are.

    Thanks to all respondents

    Paul
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    So, the answer appears to be, that as latin moved away from its cultural and literary home, it became less inflected;
    Not quite. Latin changed wherever it was spoken, including in Italy. Side by side with the changes Latin was preserved (though not quite in its classical form) as a written language. It was only when the spoken and written forms had diverged considerably that the vernaculars started to be written. Even in Ancient Rome the spoken language must have differed from the written language.

    ...the lack of case endings leading to ambiguity. The construction that I refer to as "personal a" and others, were used to restore clarity.
    I do not think it is as simple as that. When looking at the history of a language it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that some earlier form was "intermediate". However, at any given moment in history a language is a complete system. I do not think that at any time there was ambiguity because language cannot be ambiguous if it is to be a useful means of communication. The loss of case endings and strategies to compensate for the loss must have taken place simultaneously.

    Language change is a bit like a kaleidoscope that you turn a little at a time. Each time you tweak it a few of the beads move, but the pattern is still recognisably related to the last pattern. The more you turn it, the more different the pattern is from the first pattern, but each pattern of beads is still a complete pattern.
     

    ppaul562

    Member
    English - and the richness of her dialec
    Thanks for your insight.

    A blinding glimpse of the obvious. You are so right. A language must always be complete - until the next revision.

    I like the kaleidoscope analogy.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Here is an example from The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages, by Mario Pei:

    Latin:
    Canis videt cervum.
    Cervum videt canis.


    Old French:
    Li chiens veit le cerf. [= Spanish El perro ve al ciervo.]
    Le cerf veit li chiens. [= Spanish Al ciervo ve el perro.]

    Pei says that French held on to case endings (at least for accusative vs. nominative) longer than Spanish, and that, for example, the form murs [= Spanish muro(s)] was nominative when singular, accusative when plural; the form mur (muro/moros), without the s, was nominative when plural, accusative when singular.

    Modern French, like English, has to use strict word order: Le chien voit le cerf. [= The dog sees the deer.]
     

    effeundici

    Senior Member
    Italian - Tuscany
    In southern Italy you may hear Chiama a Marco (Call Marco). This isn't considered standard Italian, though.

    In Romanian you use the preposition pe, which is obligatory when the direct object is definite, as the Spanish a: O iubesc pe mama mea (I love my mom). Here the pronoun o (her) has to be duplicated before the verb, like saying (I) her love (to) mother my.
    Actually southern italian dialects use a lot this strange (for me) a.

    But in standard italian a is used for dative cases.

    Perhaps spanish domination of southern italy can be an explanation.
     

    stultus

    New Member
    Hebrew, English
    Here is a great excerpt from the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas which show exactly how ambiguities led to the mandatory use of the personal "a" as well as the immobilization of a verb in singular in passive sentences:

    2.2. Se venden casas o se vende casas. Aunque tienen en común el omitir el agente de la acción, conviene no confundir las oraciones impersonales (carentes de sujeto y con el verbo inmovilizado en tercera persona del singular) y las oraciones de pasiva refleja (con el verbo en tercera persona del singular o del plural, concertando con el sujeto paciente). La confusión puede darse únicamente con verbos transitivos, pues son los únicos que pueden generar ambos tipos de oraciones: Se busca a los culpables (impersonal) / Se buscan casas con jardín (pasiva refleja).


    En el castellano antiguo solo existían las oraciones de pasiva refleja, que no planteaban ningún problema cuando el sujeto denotaba cosa: «Se cantan cosas torpes e malas» (Cuéllar Catecismo [Esp. 1325]); pero cuando el sujeto denotaba persona se producían casos de ambigüedad entre los significados reflexivo, recíproco y de pasiva refleja; así, una oración como Se tratan bien los pobres podía tener una interpretación reflexiva (a sí mismos), recíproca (entre sí) o de pasiva refleja (por alguien que no se menciona). Para evitar la ambigüedad se fue extendiendo la práctica de anteponer al sustantivo de persona la preposición a, cuando la oración debía interpretarse como pasiva refleja: «Que se respeten a los prelados de la Iglesia» (Palafox Carta [Esp. 1652]). Finalmente se inmovilizó el verbo en singular, dando lugar a la estructura impersonal con se del español actual: «A pesar del régimen excepcional con que se trataba a los reclusos extranjeros» (Chavarría Rojo [Ur. 2002]). Así pues, las oraciones impersonales nacen solo referidas a persona.
     
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