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

Herman Meester crazymulgogi at gmail.com
Sat Dec 17 09:50:51 EST 2005

Peter שלום לך
I'm glad you do seem to be sensitive to, at least the possibility of,
the idea that the Arabic article may have been l- rather than 'al. The
problem is, usually if a hamz (="alif") disappears, it is compensated
by lengthening. Not always, as you show in the case of malak ملك, but
that exists next to mal'ak ملأك.

You said that Qur'anic spelling is conservative. Although this, I
guess, is right (actually, originally not so much the written, but the
spoken, recited text was holy to Muslims), if the ل laam had been
there already before some consonants (obviously the case), we first
have to know how long this spelling already existed; Arabic wasn't
born for the Qur'an only.

A certain spelling may just be very convenient, without representing a
historical development in all cases. In Korean script, an alphabet
that was designed by scholars, letters are written that have never
existed, but they give a hint to the etymology of the preceding
syllable. Arabic consonantal spelling represents sounds that are not
written (vowels, geminations), why would it not have some signs that
do not represent a sound, for a change?

As I said before, the dissimilation needs to have been innovated in
only one or a few consonants, say ع `ayn or ب baa'; and by analogy it
could have been taken over for other consonants too.
"Popular etymology" is a notorious cause of historic-linguistic
falsification, so people may have thought: "that little sound -l- we
hear, it must be something relevant; let's write it down; if we don't
hear it, for example "(a)d-dars", but in an analogous form,
"(a)l-baab" we do hear it, we'll write it there too! After all it
should have been there in the first place." It is very convenient to
have the laam there to indicate a gemination. After all Arabic is a
stenographic type of script; matres lectionis also developed gradually
in the Semitic laguages, for the sake of easier understanding only.

For clarity's sake: the alif can represent: 1) the vowel ā; 2) a hamz
(glottal stop); 3) a separation at the end of a 3rd person plural
perfect (cf. قالوا  qālū) (which is only a straight, vertical line,
nevertheless considered to be an alif); 4) an auxiliary vowel (cf.
Qur'an 7,155 واختار موسى wa-ḵtāra mūsā, with its alifu l-wasli
completely unpronounced). All four cases happen all the time.

Therefore, I do not understand the tendency to think that in Arabic,
everything that's written must be a historical consonant. How many
letters in the English word /thought/ are historical? Both -th- and
-gh- represent only one historical consonant each, not two. Cf. Dutch
/dacht/. As English took an alphabet, the Latin one, that didn't
exactly fit, this is quite understandable. Just because for the Arabic
language, a distinct-looking script has evolved, it doesn't mean all
its consonant-signs represent one consonant each, all the time. This
would be quite unique, taking into account spelling systems all over
the world. Even Korean's unique, specially invented script is not
strictly phonetic: it writes unpronounced letters all the time, only
in order to present a word's root in one syllable.

For the sake of simplicity, hoewever, let's assume, against my
conviction, that not the gemination but the ل  l- is the original
article. Classical Arabic grammar states quite clearly: the alif of
the article (a)l- ال should never be given a hamza! This means that
the medieval native Arabic speakers, the grammarians among them, did
not think the alif there ever represented a consonant. This fits, take
ancient poetry! Never the alif is a real hamz (=glottal stop). Cf. the
spelling (a)l-laah الله "God", 2 times laam, but: li l-laah لله "to
God", actually 3 times laam!
This is an exceptional spelling, but it is the standard, and nobody
ever complains of the alif that's "missing". Actually, the rule in
Arabic is that the spelling is based on the situation "in pausa". So
we write فتحت الباب ftht 'lb'b, but we say fatahtu l-baaba, never
*fatahtu 'al-baaba. When you look at Arabic in transcription, it all
becomes much clearer. Another example is the imperative: (i)ktub!
"Write!" Written 'ktb اكتب , it becomes wa-ktub! واكتب; no sign of any
hamz. And I could make this list quite a bit longer.

You think it is improbable that Epyptian, rather than "Arabian"
Arabic, would have more conservative traits. As I said before: I think
there are no linguistic reasons why this would not be possible. A
language can be imported or not, this doesn't always matter. In India,
English -a- in dance is pronounced in an older pronunciation ([dahns])
than in North America: [dehns]. In fact, if a language is imported,
there may be a more "schoolish" approach of its pronunciation, which
is almost by definition more conservative.
Repeating myself:
In Egyptian Arabic we have the ج Jiim of several other dialects and
Modern Standard Arabic pronounced as Giim, so -G- in "give", not -J-
in "jest". In Hebrew the corresponding ג gimel, pronunciation -G- in
"give", seems to represent, like Egyptian Arabic ج, the older version
(cf. Greek's gamma Γ, also pronounced that way). If so, Egyptian
Arabic's double -KK- and -GG- in the article may also preserve the
older, not the younger state, in comparison to MSA.

כל טוב לך

2005/12/15, Peter Kirk <peter at qaya.org>:
> 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.
> >
> >Herman:
> >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
> >case.
> >
> >
> 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
> cross-linguistically.
> >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
> poet.
> 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
> correctly).
> >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)
> http://www.qaya.org/

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