LINGUIST List 3.207

Wed 04 Mar 1992

Sum: The la -> el rule

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Message 1: Summary on the la -> el rule]

Date: Sun, 1 Mar 92 23:41:50 ESTSummary on the la -> el rule]
From: <Alexis_Manaster_RamerMTS.cc.Wayne.edu>
Subject: Summary on the la -> el rule]

I would like to thank all those who wrote in about the la -> el
rule in Spanish and summarize briefly the results. It appears
that (a) all speakers have 'el' before feminine nouns beginning
with a stressed 'a', except personal names (e.g. La Ana), the
place name La Haya 'The Hague', and the letter names la a and
la hache, (b) there is a lot of variation involving feminines
starting with unstressed 'a', such as azucar 'sugar' and
avestruz 'ostrich' as well as diminutives such as almita 'little
soul'. There are some speakers who have 'el' in all of these
but there are also some who have no such examples at all (either
because they use 'la' or because they treat some of these as
masculines) and there are apparently also some other kinds
of speakers (incl. ones who vacillate). One speaker, I should
add, reports using la alma in the phrase la alma de casa.

Also, nouns derived from adjectives (as well as adjectives
themselves, of course) do not trigger the rule, hence la arabe
'the Arab woman'.
I should perhaps add that all this is significant because
in some recent work in phonology theoretical claims have
been made which assume that the rule applies simply before
stressed 'a' and in diminutives derived from words beginning
with stressed 'a' (i.e. in cases like el alma and el almita).

To the extent that there are speakers who say el alma but
la almita and also that there are speakers who say el azucar
and/or el avestruz (with feminine modifiers), these claims
would appear to be on shaky ground.

One further question would be worth having an answer to: What
do native speakers of Spanish feel in the case of a common
noun which begins with a stressed 'a' but which is new to
the language? For example, if you were told that a kind
of, let us say, carriage used in some culture or an exotic
species of gazelle, or something, was called arba, would
you then want to say 'el arba' or 'la arba'?

I ask this because phonology, like syntax, is supposed to
deal with the possible forms in a language rather than
merely the ones attested in a standard dictionary or grammar,
so we should find out whether the la -> el rule is
fully productive.
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