The Definite Article. You think you’re it, don’t you. The Real McCoy. Marker of Nouns. King of the Corpus. Potentate of Indicate. The Determinator. And none of this schwa-ed, unstressed vowelness in speaking your blessed name, either. It’s got to sound Biblical, with that long “e” dragging out behind like so many yards of purple silk. THE [Di˘]. Not even phonological spelling does you justice, does it?
Well I’ve got news for you, Your Highness. You’re a small English fish in a large linguistic lake. You’re ruler over a Forbidden City, outside of which millions of people barely recognize your existence. Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic speakers get along just fine without knowing or caring whether “a cat’s out of a bag” or “the cat’s out of the bag.” European and South American languages have effectively emasculated the by dividing its realm into gendered, pluralistic spaces: le, los, las, lo, il, el, etc. La lista goes on and on. And let’s face it. You don’t translate well, not even from English to English. Nine out of ten teachers couldn’t explain the in less than 20 words, and before they finished they’d have already thought of two or three exceptions to what they’re saying.
For native speakers the is an extra tongue flip, extra lip spit, an extra foot count that poets have to insert abbreviationally or risk tripping up their pentameters. For English learners it’s a maddening riddle, stilting their speech by under- and overuse alike.
Still, I grant that it would be difficult to drag the down from its throne overnight. Centuries of usage have made us dependent on it. We rely on its ability to identify and emphasize. After all, Obi-wan Kenobi wasn’t talking about arm wrestling when he told Luke Skywalker to “use The Force!” (Luke could have made a killing in beer joints from here to Coruscant as a wrist wrestler if he’d switched to The Dark Side). And what would we have thought of Muhammad Ali proclaiming, “I am A Greatest!” (And who would have dared correct him?)
There’s more to this, I’ll concede. If we all suddenly stopped using definite articles, we’d be forced to talk in abstracts that no one could pin down. We’d probably be pointing a lot more with our fingers, saying “That one, that one!” Opinions, points of reference, and values could multiply exponentially. No one would have anything in common anymore. We wouldn’t be able to handle “The Truth,” because there wouldn’t be one. Chaos could ensue; worlds divide; parallel universes appear out of nowhere; doppelgangers; infinite, repetitious Big Bangs....
Perhaps I’m overstating it a bit. Actually I would speculate that, once we got over confronting this gaping void of “definitiveness” where definite articles used to be, we could learn to take a more encompassing view of objects and concepts, and to distinguish among them in clearer, more thoughtful and imaginative ways. My shoes are in the wash would be a much more informative statement if presented as My shoes are in that unique place where soiled things are spun to brightness and blemishes are washed away. Questions like Where’s the bus station? could be eloquently redrawn as Where am I to locate a public street conveyance near here? And The burdock salad is unavailable today could be beautifully rendered as No burdock; try cucumber.
As in most revolutions-in-embryo, we are at an important brink where we must choose whether it is better to continue living under a yoke of grammatical stricture and lexical limitation, or to instead fight for semantic freedom and subjective/objective pluralism in a liberated, non-definite article world. Are you going to go on letting Them tell you The way things are? Or are you going to take a bull by its horns (who cares which bull—any bull!) and create your own way? The choice is yours. You have a choice.