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Function of the definite article

The definite article indicates that the domain of discourse is constructed in such a way that its noun phrase (NP) has a unique referent in a local domain of discourse (Van Rooy 2017:264). This implies that its NP is a topic that is either familiar from the preceding discourse, or is common knowledge which is known anyhow to the discourse participants.


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 article die the is used to make the dog, now familiar in the domain of discourse, the topic. In this example, the discourse has made the NPhond dog a familiar referent.

In other cases, the referent will already or always be known to the discourse participants, as illustrated by the following examples:

Die President stel die Adjunkpresident en Ministers aan.
the president appoint the deputy.president and ministers on
The President appoints the Deputy President and Ministers.
Die burgermeester het intussen 'n aandklokreël ingestel om plundery te voorkom.
the mayor have.AUX meanwhile a evening.bell.rule in.set.PST for.COMP looting PTCL.INF prevent.INF
The mayor, meanwhile, has set an evening bell rule to prevent looting.

But a definite NP like the president or the mayor bears the definite article, since this referent will already be known to all the discourse participants; this referent directly conjures up a familiar discourse – a county only has one president, a city has only one mayor.

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