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

Peter Kirk peter at qaya.org
Thu Dec 15 17:53:24 EST 2005

On 14/12/2005 06:06, Herman Meester wrote:

>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.
Is the following your "rather good argument"? I think your opponent 
knows better than you here, in most ways.

>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

Yes, but do you have any evidence? It really does seem improbable that 
modern Egyptian Arabic is more conservative in such ways than ancient 
classical Arabic, as Arabic was brought into Egypt by speakers of 
something like classical Arabic.

>Obviously, the way the Arabic article is written (alif laam) doesn't
>mean anything, as I hope you agree. ...

No, I don't agree. If anything in Arabic is conservative, it is the 
spelling in the Qur'an, which for most Arabs is the very words of God. 
The Qur'anic spelling of the article, always with lam, surely indicates 
very early writers' intuition about the form of the article, even if it 
was not how they actually pronounced it.

>... 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. ...

If so, the dissimilation must have taken place in Arabia before the 
Qur'an was written, but somehow the Arabs who moved from Arabia to Egypt 
after the Qur'an was written avoided this dissimilation, and have 
preserved this idiosyncrasy for 1400 years.

>... 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.

Fair enough. The theory that the Arabic article is simply l-, and the 
preceding a- is simply to ease pronunciation, does seem reasonably 
promising. However, you need to expalin why the added vowel is a- here, 
but i- in ibn etc, and for this reason it seems more likely to me that 
the original article was al-, or perhaps hal-, with the a- or ha- 
eliding after a word ending in a vowel - an extremely common phenomenon 

>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.

Are you talking about the word for "north" or "north wind" here? There 
certainly seems to be an alef in the original form of this word, cf. 
Hebrew שְׂמֹאל sem'ol "left, north". BDB, yes, the Hebrew dictionary in its 
entry for this word, gives various Arabic forms: شِمَالٔ, شَمَالٔ, شَأمَلٔ, شَامَلٔ 
for the Arabic word meaning "north wind", and in all of these the 
original root alef seems to have disappeared, or been reduced to a mere 
long vowel indicator. The Persian form of the word seems to be شَمال 
"north" and شِمال "left", in which the alef is again a long vowel 
indicator. So the loss of the glottal stop is not just a matter for one 

Another similar case is Arabic and Persian ملك malak "angel", which is 
surely cognate with Hebrew מַלְאָך mal'ak "messenger, angel", but the alef 
seems to have been lost in Arabic in the singular, although preserved in 
the plural form ملائك, ملائكه mala'ik(a) (not sure I have written these 

>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.

This, it seems to me, fits rather well. If in proto-NW Semitic or 
something the article was l-, it would have attracted a vowel before it 
which was perhaps a-, which in certain dialects became aspirated to ha- 
(a process which you call "not surprising"); but this is not found after 
a vowel in a prefix or (in Arabic) in a preceding word. There is nothing 
here which gives more support to gemination than to the original article 
being l-. And it still seems more probable to me that the article was 
al- rather than simply l-.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list