[b-hebrew] Origins of the definite article of BHebrew

Herman Meester crazymulgogi at gmail.com
Wed Dec 14 01:06:49 EST 2005

Hello everyone,
For those interested, below I quote a discussion, only lengthy at
first sight, it's not so bad, on the origin of the articel in
Central/NW Semitic. It is intended for those who are still in doubt, a
condition I would be happy relieve you of ;) Especially the end is
IMHO rather good argument that I hadn't thought of before. My opponent
knows a lot of comparative Sem. linguistics, maybe too much to be good
for him ;) but this is not always the best strategy.
Of course it is relevant to the "Hatav theory", which is in fact the
only reason I am interested in the article origin in the first place.
enjoy ;)

Someone was quoted:
"The Arabic, Canaanite and Modern South Arabian definite article has a
common origin and goes back to an original demonstrative pronoun which
was a compound inflected for gender, number and probably also for
case. It can be reconstructed as *han(V)- for masc. sing., *hat(V)-
for fem. sing. and *hal(V)- for plural. Assimilations of -n- and -t-
to the following consonant (including -n-l- > -ll- and -t-l- > ll)
neutralized the opposition of gender and number and led to a
reinterpretation of either hal/'al- or han/'an->'am- synchronically as
basic variant. In Aramaic the suffixed definite article was due not to
simple suffixation of ha but to a resegmentation of the postposed
compound demonstrative ha-ze-[n(a)] and suffixation of enclitic ha >
-a which has been generalized."

Lameen Souag:
I haven't yet read the Zaborski article you linked to, but at first
blush I'd emend it only slightly: make it *han- m. and *'il- pl. (I'm
not aware of any evidence bearing on what its feminine form would have
been), following the Hebrew and Arabic plural demonstratives whose
roots start with ' rather than h. I'd want to see what his argument is
for 'an > 'am: that sound shift looks very ad hoc, but then again I
haven't got any better suggestion.

My opinion regarding the origin of the "definite article" in Arabic,
Hebrew, etc. follows Ullendorf: the gemination of the first consonant
of the noun is itself the "definite article". Then we have in some
cases dissimilation to (a)l. The vowel -a- is only needed to resolve
2-consonant clustering at the beginning of a word, which is not
allowed in Arabic.
This is most logical, as in Hebrew there is no dissimilation at all.
12:30 AM

Lameen Souag:
Then you have to postulate a process dissimilating geminates to -lC-,
despite the fact that geminates are perfectly acceptable everywhere
else in Arabic, and despite the extreme phonetic unnaturalness of a
sound change that would (for instance) take kk > lk (in fact, I am not
aware of any instance of such a change in any language.) On top of
this, you have to explain why the epenthetic vowel is a-, rather than
i- like everywhere else in Arabic (ibn, iftataHa, etc.). I consider
this significantly less plausible than any of the theories discussed
9:16 AM

Dissimilation, too, is a very natural phenomenon. For example, we have
the root GMD, but also a word gulmuud/galmuud (Arabic, and the Hebrew
book of Job). Dissimilation happens only in the case of the
Qamar-consonants, and in Egyptian Arabic doesn't even happen for -K-
and -G-. If there is no original gemination, why is there always alifu
l-wasl? Apparently the article is not really a word, at most only a
letter, and in my opinion just a gemination. The vowel -a- instead of
-i- is immaterial, how can a short vowel in Arabic be evidence to
anything? "Philippi's Law" allows for -i- and -a- to change places all
the time. This theory I have here is the most simple and elegant
theory, because it also explains Hebrew's article very easily: always
The interesting thing I observe is, it seems so obvious to most people
that there must be a "definite article" in Arabic just like in many
European languages; have you ever thought of the possibility that
things work just a little differently in Hebrew and Arabic? Hundreds
of languages have no article at all: Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Latin,
why would Arabic have a word for it? The only "article" there
originally was in Arabic, is first consonant gemination. The fact it
has been interpreted later on as a "word", is irrelevant.
One problem with the idea that it is a real word is, why does it
precede a noun, and never follow it? In Arabic, a word that gives
further information about another word usually follows that word. Why
is this so different in the case of the "article"?
Compare Arabic to (biblical) Hebrew and you'll see that primary
gemination just fits.
10:01 AM

Lameen Souag:
It doesn't explain the ha- in Hebrew; it doesn't explain the -l- in
Arabic (there is no reason to believe that the -l- in julmuud was
originally a dissimilation, rather than an infix, even assuming that
it does derive from jmd); it doesn't explain the hn- article in
Safaitic; "Philippi's law" is not operative in Arabic to begin with;
in fact, the only thing this theory would explain is the gemination.

In Arabic, of course, determiners regularly precede the noun -
demonstratives (hadha, dhalika), numbers, and qualifiers (kull, 'ayy,
etc), exactly as you would expect if the article developed from a
4:12 AM

Thanks Lameen, I'll comment.

Lameen: "It doesn't explain the ha- in Hebrew; it doesn't explain the
-l- in Arabic"

H.: I would say, why not?
First we have a proto-Central-Semitic noun, say:


~> C1-Gemination:
*qquds "the 'quds' "

~> auxiliary vowel to resolve 2-consonant clustering at the beginning of a word:
*( )aqquds

~> auxiliary consonant preceding the -a-
~> -h- in Hebrew: haqquds (haqqodesh)
~> nothing in Arabic: (a)qquds

In Arabic, dissimilation of some double consonants (for instance, -qq- ~> -lq-)
~> *(a)qquds ~> (a)lquds
Of which the laam was written for convenience in all cases.

I think this is a perfectly plausible theory.

Lameen: "(there is no reason to believe that the -l- in julmuud was
originally a dissimilation, rather than an infix, even assuming that
it does derive from jmd)"

H.: An infix is rather conjectural and, as you must admit, very
unlikely. If you take a good look at the semantics of GMD and GLMD, it
is very plausible the roots are related/one root.

Lameen: "it doesn't explain the hn- article in Safaitic;"

H.: Safaitic is irrelevant, it is of a much farther branch of Semitic
than Arabic and Hebrew. We cannot use Safaitic to either prove or
disprove anything regarding this.
	(*I was confused here, this is not true but Safaitic is still irrelevant)

Lameen: "Philippi's law" is not operative in Arabic to begin with;"

H.: I agree, but we can't seriously say that short, unstressed vowels
-a- or -i- in Arabic or Hebrew are evidence to anything at all, can
we? The vowel -a- preceding the gemination of the article hardly
exists in Arabic, because it is "overruled" by any short vowel ending
of a preceding word.

Lameen: "in fact, the only thing this theory would explain is the gemination."

H.: Which is a very important, i.e. the only thing that really matters
in the article! The rest is secondary.

Lameen: "In Arabic, of course, determiners regularly precede the noun
- demonstratives (hadha, dhalika), numbers, and qualifiers (kull,
'ayy, etc), exactly as you would expect if the article developed from
a demonstrative."

H.: OK, but we can also argue these words form a different
construction when they are combined with another word.
Your example kull is already out, btw.: it's a construct. Numbers
aren't really relevant either, because they can both precede and
follow a noun.

I have a question for you: if you say that in
"the piety" (written: al-tuqaa), we are dealing with laam assimilating
to taa, how do you explain:
stem VIII of root LQY? Apparently, there is no need for laam to
assimilate to taa.
Don't tell me (what I always hear when I discuss this) this is an
exception or something; if you disagree, I need a strong refutation.
Because this is convincing evidence that, as there is no law lt- >
tt-, we are dealing with dissimilation, rather than assimilation in
the case of the "article" -(a)l-.

best regards,
8:37 AM

Lameen Souag:
There is, of course, no general law assimilating lt > tt. There is no
law dissimilating kk > lk either (compare shakkala.) The question
therefore becomes: which is more natural? lt > tt is a very normal
sound change - total regressive assimilation, which you'll find many
examples of in any historical linguistics textbook. Arabic itself has
other examples of lt>tt, as Sibawayh notes. tt > lt is decidedly less
normal - and kk > lk, or jj > lj, are completely unprecedented. In a
choice between postulating two irregular sound shifts, you have to
pick the more natural one.

"auxiliary vowel to resolve 2-consonant clustering at the beginning of
a word" is ad hoc. Hebrew broke up Proto-Semitic 2-consonant clusters
by inserting a vowel _after_ the 1st consonant, not before (consider
ben, shem, shnayim) - and, as I noted, Arabic did so by inserting i-,
not a-.

"auxiliary consonant preceding the -a-" is not motivated at all. What
other cases of Hebrew randomly prefixing an h to prevent an initial
vowel are there?

Safaitic (a North Arabian language, I should note, not a South Arabian
one) is much more closely related to Arabic than Hebrew is; in fact,
it may be a dialect of Arabic. It certainly is relevant to this

Short unstressed a and i vowels also need to be considered. Just
because the sound shifts they have undergone are confusing doesn't
mean they can be ignored entirely.
10:01 AM

You are right: the question is, what is more natural in the case of
the "article", assimilation or dissimilation? Then you call the
examples kk > lk and jj > lj "unprecedented".

That's interesting. because in Egyptian Arabic we have: ikkursi "the
chair" or iggawaami`, "the mosques". Is Egyptian an example of even
further assimilation, or an example of (more conservative) original
gemination that did not dissimilate yet? I think the latter is the

Obviously, the way the Arabic article is written (alif laam) doesn't
mean anything, as I hope you agree. If we have, in a number of
consonants, dissimilation to (a)lC, the spelling may well be based on
the dissimilation, not on the original gemination. In my own language,
Dutch, we write quite a lot of things that have nothing to do with
original phonetics.

If we then look purely at phonology, we find that, when we follow your
point of view, the original Arabic article is not 'al, but l. After
all, there may often be the short -a- vowel preceding -l-/the
gemination, but this -a- is always overruled by any preceding short
vowel in an open, ending syllable. The alif is always alifu l-wasl,
meaning that it is no consonant at all, it's just a letter signifying
the absence of any consonant, easy for spelling.

I don't think we can argue with that; it is hardly possible that the
alif of the "article" al- has quiesced, having once been a real
glottal stop, because Arabic has kept a lot, or most, of its original
glottal stops. I guess شمال shimaal vs. شمأل sham'al (found this word
in "Qifaa nabki" of Imru'u l-Qays) may be an exception I can think of,
where hamz has disappeared, but this may be also the force of
three-consonantal root building, or it may be that the poet, for
reasons of rhythm, couldn't use a long vowel there.

So we have the undeniable fact that in your conviction, only the
consonant -l- is the article in Arabic, not *'al. Where, then, is the
link with -han-, -ham-, or -hal- or whatever in other Semitic or other
than standard Arabic languages? If we present it in writing, we can
make people believe that *'al has something to do with *hal, *han, and
the like, but once we present the phonological facts, i.e. the Arabic
"article" is -l-, and the Hebrew sister "article" is -ha(n/l/m?), it
doesn't fit anymore: the parallel is too far-fetched.

The actual Hebrew "article" is just first consonant gemination, pure
and simple. No problems with dissimilation here, making it even
The hey letter (which may have been unpronounced, just like the alifu
l-wasl in Arabic!), and the vowel -a- are hardly surprising. The fact
that we have words like shem, ben and shnayim/shtayim is no real
evidence. Those haven't been geminates, first of all, second, we don't
know at which point in time these forms arose and when the "article"
arose. For example, the word shtayim has a non-aspirated tav, meaning
that according to the masoretic rules, the shwa under shin does not
represent a vowel at all, or when it does, it's a rather late
development, otherwise the tav would have been aspirated. These two
little words do not convince me.

Considering the above, I don't think you can maintain that Arabic uses
only the auxiliary vowel -i- to resolve initial 2-consonant
clustering. In the article, we have in your theory *lbayt ~> (a)lbayt.
Unless you would want to argue that in (a)l, there was once a real
hamz *'al, a theory that is so improbable we can disregard it here. So
the argument that auxiliary vowels resolving 2-cons. clustering in
Arabic are always i-, not a-, cannot stand.

My theory then, that we have *ddars ~> (a)ddars, *nnuur ~> (a)nnuur
etc., and the equiv. in Hebrew, is the simplest solution.
7:20 AM

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