"ArabDIN|Al-" ( _ar. ال۔, also transliterated as "el-" and in some cases "il-" and "ul-") is a prefix in the Arabic language which functions as a definite article, comparable to the English word "". For example, 'the book' is _ar. الكتاب "al-kitāb". Like the English word 'the', "al-" is not a permanent component of words it is attached to; it is only prefixed to a word to make the word definite — continuing the example, 'a book', or simply 'book', is _ar. كتاب "kitāb", as Arabic does not have an indefinite article. Unlike English usage, Arabic grammar requires "al-" to be used with adjectives modifying the definite noun. For example, 'the big book' in English requires only one instance of 'the', but in Arabic the phrase is _ar. الكتاب الكبير "al-kitāb al-kabīr", with two instances of "al-" (DEF-book-DEF-big, literally, 'the book, the big [one] '). Hebrew, another language in the Semitic family, has similar rules for the use of its definite article.


Arabic phonology heavily influences the way "al-" is pronounced. When the article is prefixed to words that start with dental, alveolar, and sibilant consonants, known as "ArabDIN|ḥuruf šamsiyya (حروف شمسية)", or 'solar letters', the "l" of the article disappears as gemination of the consonant occurs. For example, the definite of "šams" "sun" is written _ar. الشّمس <"ArabDIN|ʾl-šms">, but is pronounced (and transliterated) as "ArabDIN|aš-šams".

There are fourteen sun letters; the remaining consonants, which do not geminate, are known as "ArabDIN|ḥurūf qamariyya" (حروف قمرية), 'moon letters'. For example, in the transliteration of ArabDIN|ʿIzzu d-Dīni l-Qassām ( _ar. عزّ الدّين القسّام), the sun letter dal is geminated, while the moon letter qaf is not. In both cases, "al-" is written the same way, but where the following consonant is a sun letter it is marked with "shadda" to show that it is geminated in pronunciation and that the "l" should not be pronounced.

Although always written as "alif-lām", the article's "alif" carries a "ArabDIN|hamzatu l-waṣl" ( _ar. همزة الوصل), meaning that the initial vowel is elided in sandhi (or, equivalently, the "a" is a prosthetic vowel only produced in hiatus). For example, following a damma, the phrase orthographically written _ar. البيت الكبير <"ArabDIN|ʾl-byt ʾl-kbyr">, with full harakat, <"ArabDIN|ʾal-baytu ʾal-kabīru">, is pronounced (and transliterated) in Classical Arabic as "ArabDIN|ʾal-baytu l-kabīru"; that is, the second article appears simply as /l/.

Most notably, the theonym "Allah" is treated as if it contained (as it etymologically does, see also "El (deity)") the article. Thus, the iḍāfa _ar. عبد الله "servant of God" is transliterated as "ArabDIN|ʿAbdu llahi" (with the "-u" marking the nominative, and "-i" for the genitive), but the final case ending is omitted in hiatus, giving "ArabDIN|ʿAbdu llah". In the case of solar letters, the article phonemically is only present as a gemination: thus, _ar. عبد الرّحمن is "ArabDIN|ʿAbdu r-Raḥmān" ArabDIN|/ʕabduaħmaːn/.


As stated, "al-" functions as a definite article, and its presence (or lack thereof) affects the grammar and semantics of an entire sentence. In its most basic use it makes a noun definite: "al-kitab", "the book". If an adjective is added, the result is a noun phrase: "al-kitab al-kabir", "the big book". However, if the adjective lacks the definite "al-", then the result is a full sentence: "al-kitab kabir", "the book is big". This compensates for the lack of the verb "to be" in the present tense. If neither the noun or the adjective has the definite article, the result is also a noun phrase, but indefinite: "kitab kabir", "a big book".

In "Nisbah"

In a similar way, "al-" can be attached to nouns or adjectives within the name of a person. A major component of Arabic names is the "nisba" (نسبة), or place-of-origin identifier. "ArabDIN|Maṣr" ( _ar. مصر), for instance, is the Arabic word for Egypt. Adding the suffix "ArabDIN|-ī" produces the nisba "ArabDIN|Maṣrī", 'Egyptian'. When "al-" is added, the nisba becomes definite: 'the Egyptian'. Definite nisbas are often found at the end of Arabic personal names, following kunyas and other elements, denoting geographical origin. For instance, on second reference ArabDIN|’Abū Muṣ‘ab az-Zarqāwī ( _ar. أبومصعب الزّرقاوي) would be referred to as "az-Zarqāwī", meaning 'the man from ArabDIN|Zarqā’'.

In "idafa"

An important characteristic of Arabic sentences is the "idafa" (إضافة), a genitive construction which depends on the placement of "al-". In this construction, only the last noun takes "al-", although the other nouns remain semantically definite : "kitab al-talib", "the student's book" ("the book of the student"). An adjective in this structure must come at the end: "kitab al-talib al-kabir", "the student's big book" (this phrase can also be read as "the book of the big student"; in Classical Arabic these two meanings can be distinguished by the case endings of "student" and "big").

Semitic etymology

Some earlier Semiticists (e.g. Davidson, Weingreen) have hypothesised that the Arabic definite article "al-" ( _ar. ال۔) and the Hebrew (and Old North Arabian) definite article "ha-" ( _he. ה־) have origins in a proto-Semitic definite article *"hal-" ( _ar. هل۔/ _he. הל־; without an alif/alef, since the definite articles lack long vowels). Supporters of this theory sometimes cite the Arabic word 'this': "hadhā" ( _ar. هذا), which, when combined with a definite phrase, is shortened in some accents of Levantine Arabic from "hadhā al-bayt" (this house) to "hal-bayt" ( _ar. هذا البيت becomes _ar. هلبيت)Verify source|date=March 2008. However, this could be an influence from other Northern Semetic languages on the Arabic dialect of Levantine ArabsOr|date=March 2008.

Another view is that:
*"l" or "al" is in origin a demonstrative pronoun meaning "that".
*The Hebrew article "ha-" is derived from a separate demonstrative, found in Aramaic as "hā" (that) and represented in Arabic by the (optional) first syllable of "(ha)dhā" (this) and "(ha)'ula'i" (these). This could be supported that the second syllables of demonstratives (and others), namely "dhā" ذا and "'ula'i" أولاء are used as demonstratives on their own (in various forms) without the "hā".
*The form "hal-bayt" is simply a shortening of "hā al bayt" or "hadhā al bayt" and not evidence for an original form *"hal" underlying both Hebrew and Arabic articles.

A further question is whether the initial "alif" is a root consonant (thus linking "al-" with Arabic "ula'i" and Hebrew "eleh" (these) and Arabic "awwal" (first, former)) or simply a phonetic supplement to prevent a word beginning with two consonants (as in "ibn"). That, however, is mere speculation and the fact that it is written with "hamzatu'l-waṣli" and disappears in pronunciation following a vowel suggests the latter.


*cite book | last =Alosh| first =Mahdi | year = 2000 | title = Ahlan wa Sahlan: Functional Modern Standard Arabic for Beginners| publisher = Yale University Press | location = New Haven | id =
*cite book | last = Haywood | first = JA | coauthors = HM Nahmad | title = A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language | edition = 2nd edition | origyear = 1962 | year = 2005 | publisher = Lund Humphries | location = Aldershot, Hampshire, UK | id = ISBN 0-85331-585-X
*cite book | last = Weingreen | first = J | title = A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew | origyear = 1939 | year = 1952 | publisher = Oxford University Press | pages = 23–24 | chapter = The Article | quote = The "definite" article 'the' is said to have been originally הל (like the Arabic 'al'). When attached to a word it defined (e.g. הלמלך 'the king'), the vowelless ל was assimilated and the following letter was consequently doubled, with Dagheš Forte (p. 15) המלך.
* [ Explanation of the Arabic prefix 'AL-']

See also

*Arabic grammar

External links

* [ What's Up With "Al-"?] at Slate

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