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Function of the indefinite article

The indefinite article'n a is primarily used for the first introduction, the presentation, of a new referent into the domain of discourse (Van Rooy 2017:264).


For a referent to become familiar, it must first be introduced into the discourse. Indefinites are used to signal the first introduction of a new referent in the discourse. The following discourse illustrates this:

Sy het gesien daar was 'n hond in die slagyster op Mini se erf. Daar was ook 'n vars dooie bokkop wat die hond gelok het.
she have.AUX see.PST there be.PRT a dog in the trap on Mini PTCL.GEN yard there be.PRT also a fresh dead goat.head that.REL the dog lure.PST have.AUX
She saw that there was a dog in the trap on Mini's yard. There was also a fresh dead goat's head that lured the dog.

The indefinite article 'n a presents a new referent, a dog, in the discourse, whereas the definite articledie the is used to make the dog, now familiar in the domain of discourse, the topic. In this example, the discourse has made the noun phrase (NP) hond dog a familiar referent.

As the indefinite article is used for the presentation of a new discourse referent, it characteristically shows up in daar-clauses:

Daar is 'n kat in die tuin.
there be.PRS a cat in the garden
There is a cat in the garden.

In the example above, the indefinite NP'n kat a cat is specific, that is, concrete. However, indefinite NPs may also be interpreted as variables, which do not have a specific, concrete interpretation, as in the following example:

Gerbrand wil 'n kat hê.
Gerbrand want.to.AUX.MOD a cat have.INF
Gerbrand wants a cat.

In this example, it may not be known which specific cat Gerbrand wants, but if he takes a cat, he will have a specific one. In the following example, the meaning of the indefinite NP depends on the meaning of a universal quantifier:

Elkeen het 'n geheim.
everybody have.PRS a secret
Everybody has a secret.

In the example above, many different specific secrets are involved, depending on the person picked out by the universal quantifier. This reading is called a list or distributive reading. The indefinite article may also be responsible for a generic reading:

'n Koei hou van gras eet
a cow like of grass eat
A cow likes to eat grass

Bare plurals can also carry a generic reading, as shown in the example below:

Koeie eet graag gras.
cows eat eagerly grass
Cows eat grass eagerly.
  • Van Rooy, B2017Kontemporêre Afrikaanse taalkunde [Contemporary Afrikaans linguistics]Carstens, W.A.M. & Bosman, N. (ed.)Afrikaanse sintaksis, funksioneel benader [Afrikaans syntax, functionally approached]Van Schaik Uitgewers251-297
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