Why are articles used before so many nouns in Italian? I know Italian is not English, I'm just curious the reasoning behind using an article before nouns, what utility does it serve?
I would like to clarify something:
The article is a grammatical particle that you can pre-post to names or substantivized parts of a speech (a term referring to a part of speech used in function of the noun. like "l'italiano è una lingua antica" or "l'essere è qualcosa di insondabile" or "il Pesarese è un bel territorio"); it specifies if we are talking about an specific object (definite articles) or not (indefinite articles).
The definite article has:
- 2 forms for the singular masculine: il, lo;
- 2 for the plural masculine: i, gli;
- 1 form for the femminine singular: la;
- 1 form for the femminine plural: le.
How to use the definite articles:
"il" (plural "i") is used before all names that starts with a consonant, except impure s, z, x, ps, pn and i semi-consonant (i + vocal). ("Il libro")
"lo" (plural "gli") is used before masculine names which starts with an impure s, z, x, ps, pn and i semi-consonant (i + vocal). ("Lo zaino")
"la" must be "apostrophed" before a vocal ("la casa" , "l'opera"), while the plural "le" is not (specially if the name doesn't change in the plural form: "la età", "le età", not "l'età", otherwise it misunderstands with the singular form)
When articles should be omitted:
Despite even many Italian people doesn't know (or doesn't apply) all these rules, the article should be omitted:
before cities or little islands names ("Roma è antichissima; Montecristo è un'isoletta del mar Tirreno"), except some cases in which the article is part of the name ("L'Aquila, Il Cairo, La Spezia")
before proper names ("Carlo è bravissimo"), anyway in popular language, family, female names are preceded usually by article ("é venuta La Titti"). This exception does not apply to historical and mythological names: ("Lucretia, Sappho, Cleopatra, Diana")
with names with predicate function ("L'ozio è padre di tutti i vizi; Carlo è tuo compagno di scuola") unless the name is accompanied by an adjective ("Il leone è un animale feroce; Giorgio è un bravo dottore")
with copulative verbs followed by a predicate complement of the subject ("Stefano fu eletto deputato") or object ("Lo proclamarono presidente dell'assemblea")
with the names used in appositive function ("Giulio Cesare, condottiero romano; Ho rivisto Angela, mia amica d'infanzia")
with vocatives ("Caro dottore, mi faccia una buona visita")
proverbs and sentences ("Rosso di sera, bel tempo si spera; Dove manca natura, arte procura")
in many nominal groups ("uomo d'ingegno; andare in bicicletta; aspettare in sala d'attesa; nutrirsi di pane e acqua")
generally in the titles of books or chapters and wall writings ("Vocabolario della lingua italiana, Compendio di storia moderna, Prefazione; Ingresso; Redazione; Piazza Cavour")
with the names of kinship preceded by a possessive adjective that is not "loro" ("mio padre, mia madre") unless the name is plural ("i miei fratelli, le mie sorelle") or preceded by an adjective ("la mia vecchia madre"), or that the possessive follows the name ("il padre mio"). It should, however, always use the article with the names "babbo" and "mamma", even if accompanied by possessive ("il mio babbo, la mia mamma")
possessive pronouns, feminine "sua", "vostra" omit article when immediately preceding the names of "Maestà", "Altezza", "Eccellenza", "Signoria", "Santità", "Eminenza" ("Sua Maestà il Re, Vostra Altezza, Vostra Signoria, Sua Eccellenza il Ministro, Sua Eminenza il cardinale Ruini, Sua Santità")
When articles should be used:
- with names of countries, states and continents ("La Sicilia, La Francia, L'Asia"); but if they are used as complements or specification of place, you can sometimes omit the article ("i vini di Sicilia, vivere in Africa, andare in Belgio; i re di Spagna")
- with names of rivers, lakes, seas and mountains ("il Po, il Garda, il Mar Nero, il Gran Sasso")
- with names of famous people of the past is not preceded by the name ("il Petrarca, il Manzoni" (but "Luigi Pirandello, Giovanni Pascoli" should be written in this form), and today, however, it tends to omit the item with the illustrious names that have acquired the name ("Garibaldi, Cavour, Colombo"). Surnames of women, however, always require the item to avoid ambiguity ("la Serao, la Deledda, la Eliot, la Sand, ecc.")
- with nicknames ("il Botticelli, il Veronese, il Parmigianino")
- with abstract nouns ("la bontà, la virtù, l'odio ecc.")
- with names of material ("l'oro, l'argento, il ferro ecc.")
- with concrete names used in a general sense: ("l'uomo (for: "gli uomini"), il poeta (for: "i poeti"), l'operaio, il giovane, ecc.")
- with names indicating the unique things in nature, such as the sun, the moon, the earth, the world, the universe ("il sole, la luna, la terra, il mondo, l'universo")
- Sometimes, in popular usage, the definite article is used with no logical necessity, in the sense superfluous , for example "Passeremo la Pasqua a Parigi. Siate i benvenuti. Ho fatto le mie scuse. Sono le dieci precise. "
On the other hand, the rules of English grammar require..
..that in most cases a noun, or more generally a noun phrase, must be "completed" with a determiner to clarify what the referent of the noun phrase is. The most common determiners are the articles the and a(n), which specify the presence or absence of definiteness of the noun. Other possible determiners include words like this, my, each and many – see English determiners (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_determiners). There are also cases where no determiner is required, as in the sentence John likes fast cars. Or the sentence "Bob likes cool trains".
The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context. For example, in the sentence "The boy with glasses was looking at the moon", it is assumed that in the context the reference can only be to one boy and one moon. However, the definite article is not used:
- with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators, happiness is contagious, referring to cars in general and happiness in general (compare the happiness I felt yesterday, specifying particular happiness);
- with many proper names: John, France, London, etc.
I hope I clarified the things, sorry if I put too many articles :P
EDIT: in my opinion differences from region to region are due to differences in Italian dialects.
Italian definite articles are
"il", "lo", "la", "i", "gli", "le".
They respectively come from Latin
"ille", "illum", "illa", "illi", "illi", "illae",
meaning "that one", "those ones", but also "he", "she", "it", "they".
You use articles to identify more precisely the object of your sentence. In Italian this is done explicitly: omitting articles sounds primitive, savage, illiterate, like using only the infinitive form of any verb, without conjugating them.
Typically you can omit the article when you do not intend to identify a specific object:
navi vanno laggiù … (ships sail down there, there are ships sailing down there)
il libro ucciderà altari e cattedrali (the book will destroy altars and cathedrals)
Note that there are many other cases, though, when it is recommended or even compulsory to omit definite articles.