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Indefinite Article

Frisian has only one indefinite article, i.e. in a, pronounced as /ən/. It is not inflected for number, gender or case. If alone, i.e. in cases of nominal ellipsis, it receives the form ien. The use of the indefinite article is restricted to singular count nouns, for instance in fisk a fish. However, in certain cases we also find that it is combined with other categories, for instance with mass nouns, which then acquire a count noun interpretation. In exclamative sentences we even see in in combination with plural nouns, notably expressing a high degree. A typical meaning is also 'a certain', which emerges if the indefinite article stands before proper nouns and numerals.


Frisian has only one form for the indefinite article, viz. in /ən/. This implies that there is no gender distinction, and that the article is not inflected for case. The article in is only used in combination with singular nouns. Indefiniteness of plurals is marked by the lack of an article or, formulated in different terms, that there is a null article. Hence, the singular indefinite Noun Phrase (NP) in apel an apple has apel-s apple-PL apples as its plural cognate.

Not only does the indefinite pronoun only occur in combination with singular nouns, its selection is even more restricted in that only count nouns are qualified. This restriction is probably a semantic one; the indefinite article, which derives from the numeral ien one historically, picks out one member from a set denoted by the noun. Hence, we have in apel an apple, but not *in wetter a water, since wetter is not a count noun. In addition, the indefinite article does not combine with proper nouns, viz. *in Jan a John. However, in certain special cases these restrictions can be violated, see the section on use below.

The phonological form of the indefinite article is /ən/. This combination of schwa plus dental nasal consonant is open to several phonetic adjustments. The nasal can build a syllable on its own, after deletion of schwa; see syllabic sonorant consonants (read more about subsequent processes). Or the nasal deletes and subsequently the schwa becomes nasalized; a further phonological description may be found in the underlying representation of nasalized vowels: simplex forms. Furthermore, the nasal may become subject to place assimilation.

In cases of nominal ellipsis, the form in turns to ien if the indefinite article is immediately in front of the elided noun. Compare:

Example 1

a. in man út Amsterdam en in man út Rotterdam
a man from Amsterdam and a man from Rotterdam
a man from Amsterdam and a man from Rotterdam
b. *in man út Amsterdam en in út Rotterdam
a man from Amsterdam and a ___ from Rotterdam
c. in man út Amsterdam en ien út Rotterdam
a man from Amsterdam and one ___ from Rotterdam
a man from Amsterdam and one from Rotterdam

Note that it is the form of the numeral ien one that shows up here.

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Old Frisian

In Old Frisian, the indefinite article was still inflected for case and gender. The relevant paradigm can be found in Steller (1928:49) or Bremmer (2009:67).


The various uses of the indefinite article will be strictly touched upon in this section. More can be found in the syntactic part of the Taalportaal: function of the indefinite article and the indefinite article before a plural noun in constructions expressing a high degree.

The main function of indefinite NPs is to introduce new information into the discourse domain. Compare:

Example 2

Der rûn in stikelbaarch yn 'e tún
There was a hedgehog walking in the garden

In certain (intentional) contexts indefinite NPs are ambiguous between a specific or a non-specific reading. In a sentence like

Example 3

Hy woe in reade trui keapje
He wanted to buy a read sweater

the NP in reade trui can refer to a particular read sweater (specific reading) or any read sweater (non-specific).

Indefinite NPs may also display a generic reading:

Example 4

In knyn hat lange earen
A rabbit has long ears

The same generic reading can be found in indefinite plurals:

Example 5

Kninen ha lange earen
Rabbits have long ears

In addition, the indefinite article may occur in unexpected contexts, with a deviating reading as a result. A case in point is the use with a mass noun. This may be allowed, but then the mass noun gets an interpretation as if it were a count noun. In the examples below, we get a "sort" interpretation:

Example 6

a. in lekkere wyn a good wine
b. in fine snie a fine snow
c. in glûpende kjeld a bitter cold
d. in ûnmooglike leafde an impossible love

The indefinite article can also be used if the noun refers to a specific quantity of a mass:

Example 7

a. Jou my mar in kofje Give me a (cup of) coffee, please
b. Ik nim in petat mei kurry I'll have chips with curry

In exclamative sentences the indefinite article in can have an expressively qualifying function:

Example 8

Ik ha hjoed in aap sjoen!
I have seen a (typical) ape today!

In this way, the indefinite article may also occur in combination with mass nouns and plural nouns. In such exclamative sentences it can be both expressively qualifying and expressively quantifying. Compare:

Example 9

a. In bier dat ik hjoed dronken ha!
I have drunk special beer today! / I have drunk lots of beer today
b. Hy hat in boek-en!
hy has a book-PL
He has special books! / He has lots of books!

Normally, the indefinite article is not combined with a proper name. It is allowed, however, to express the meaning a certain, someone who bears the name X:

Example 10

Op dy pleats, dêr wennet in Dykstra
on that farm, there lives a Dykstra
There lives a certain Dykstra on that farm

Something comparable occurs when the indefinite article is placed before a numeral. It then gets a modifying (approximative) function:

Example 11

in hûndert besikers
a hundert visitors
some hundred visitors

This function of in appears to be zero if the quantifying expression has been modified approximatively in another way:

Example 12

a. in lyts(e) tweintich jier about twenty years
b. in goed(e) fjirtich beammen about forty trees
c. in fjouwer, fiif segaren some four or five cigars

These phrases do not get another meaning if in is omitted, as in lyts tweintich jier etcetera.

We also see the meaning of 'a certain' in a few idiomatic expressions:

Example 13

a. op in dei
at a day
one day
b. op in stuit
at a moment
at a certain moment
c. ta in hichte
to a height
to a certain extent
d. Dat giet oant in tiid ta
that goes until a time to
That won't last

We may find the same interpretation with indefinite plurals:

Example 14

It iis is op plakken net fertroud
In certain places the ice is not yet thick enough

The indefinite article also figures in a typical construction with two temporal expressions. The article belongs to the one which has the longest duration inherently. This NP is preceded by a bare temporal expression. The latter functions as a point in time to which the longer time span is added:

Example 15

a. hjoed in wike today a week a week from now
b. moarn in wike tomorrow a week a week from tomorrow
c. augustus in jier august a year a year from August

Dutch needs an extra preposition over over in its comparable construction, i.e. vandaag over een week today over a week a week from now. It should be noted that the construction cannot only refer to the future, but also to the past. See the quote from the Frisian writer Reinder Brolsma below:

Example 16

't Wier, sa't my foarstiet, forline hjerst in jier do't wy in loopke nei stêd ta dienen
it was, as it my for-stands, last autumn a year when we a trip to town to made
It was, as far as I remember, a year from last autumn that we made a trip to town

In referring to the past, Dutch uses the preposition voor for, so Frisian juster in wike yesterday a week ago is gisteren voor een week in Dutch.

Finally, it should be noted that predicative nouns denoting a profession, belief or ideology are not preceded by the indefinite article, in contrast with the English use:

Example 17

a. Us heit is leadjitter My dad is a plumber
b. Tony wie minnist Tony was a mennonite
c. Us Jan is anargist My brother Jan is an anarchist
d. Afke wie mem fan tsien bern Afke was a mother of ten

This also holds for predicative nouns following the conjunction as as:

Example 18

a. As jongfeint wie der gjin wylder as hy
As a young man there was no one wilder than he
b. Men kin der as monteur in slompe jild fertsjinje
One can make a lot of money there as a mechanic
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This topic is greatly indebted to an unfinished grammar of Frisian, written in English by Jarich Hoekstra. For the meaning 'a certain', see Hoekstra (1990). On the use before numerals, see Hoekstra (2005). For a general overview with a wealth of data, see also the lemma in I in Veen (1984-2011).

  • Bremmer, Rolf H. Jr2009An Introduction to Old Frisian. History, Grammar, Reader, GlossaryAmsterdam/PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
  • Hoekstra, Eric2005In trije ameublemintenFriesch Dagblad29-10Taalgenoat en taalgeniet 66
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1990Ta in hichteFriesch Dagblad24-02Taalsnipels 137
  • Steller, Walther1928Abriss der Altfriesischen Grammatik. Mit Berücksichtigung der westgermanischen Dialecten des Altenglischen, Altsächsischen und AlthochdeutschenHalleMax Niemeyer Verlag
  • Veen, Klaas F. van der et al1984-2011Wurdboek fan de Fryske taal - Woordenboek der Friese taalFryske Akademy