Q: Your article about “the dead” reminded me of a recent essay in the New York Times by the novelist Jo Nesbo. There was a note at the bottom that said it was translated “from the Norwegian.” What’s with the article “the” here?
A: It used to be quite common in English to use the definite article before the name of a language, though the usage is now “obsolete except in contexts that indicate translation from an original language,” according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged.
The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the usage from the late 1500s to the mid-1960s. The earliest is from Strange Newes, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe: “To borrowe some lesser quarry of elocution from the Latine.”
And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s: “You will come into the court and sweare that I haue a poore pennie-worth in the English.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)
Oxford also cites references to “the French,” “the Hebrew,” “the Arabic,” “the Spanish,” and “the Portuguese.”
The dictionary says the usage is seen “now only in consciously elliptical phrases” in which words like “language” and “original” are omitted.
For instance, these phrases show the ellipses (that is, omissions) in brackets: “the French [language]” … “the German [original].” Sometimes, the OED notes, “The degree of ellipsis is not easy to determine.”
The most recent example of the usage in the dictionary is from The Northern Fiddler, a collection of poetry by Brian Higgins that was published posthumously in 1966: “ ‘I’m corrupt’ he said to me in the French, ‘I think I live in corruption’s stench.’ ”
If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago about the idiomatic use of “the” with the names of things that don’t seem to need an article (or that could use the article “a” instead).