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

Peter Kirk peter at qaya.org
Sat Dec 17 18:59:03 EST 2005

On 17/12/2005 14:50, Herman Meester wrote:

>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.

Of course. Basically I am assuming (although I have not checked) that 
the spelling with alif-lam in alll cases was in the oldest surviving MSS 
of the Qur'an, which date back to within a century or two of the time of 
Mohammed if I am not mistaken. I would be very surprised if this does 
not represent a spelling already current in Mohammed's time, but I can't 
be certain of course. Are there in fact any older surviving Arabic MSS, 
of other works? What form of the article is used in them? Of course 
Arabic existed before then, but we have very few if any earlier written 

>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?

I don't understand you point here. Are you suggesting that lam was 
originally a sign of gemination? That can hardly be true as it is 
clearly cognate with Hebrew lamed, Greek lambda and our own L, and is 
used elsewhere for an L sound.

>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.

This process is of course possible, although unlikely simply because as 
you say "Arabic is a stenographic type of script" which avoids writing 
anything unnecessarily. But my point is that written records prove that 
this writing convention must go back to the time of Mohammed, or at the 
very latest shortly afterwards.

>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. ...

But surely most of these alifs, except perhaps for the long A vowel, 
represent historic consonants which have lost their pronunciation.

>... 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.

No, Herman, it would not be unique. All over the world today linguists 
are introducing orthographies for newly written languages which are 
phonetic, or at least phonemic i.e. one letter per meaningfully distinct 
sound. Masoretic Hebrew was a phonetic script. Although we can't be 
sure, we have no reason to think that Phoenician script was not phonemic 
for the consonants. The highly non-phonemic English alphabet is by no 
means typical.

>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. ...

I agree with you, there is no glottal stop at the start of the article, 
and of some other words which start with a completely silent alif. This 
is surely the standard understanding of Arabic. And yes, it is another 
exception to the rule that each letter represents an original consonant, 
but I never claimed that this rule was precise in Arabic.

>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]. ...

Don't jump to conclusions about which pronunciation is older. The Indian 
pronunciation is also the standard (RP) British one, but American 
pronunciations quite often represent older British pronunciation, 
preceding some sound changes in the 18th century. The older 
pronunciation is often, as here, preserved in British local accents. 
Yes, this is a case where the migrants and those who have borrowed the 
language have preserved the older pronunciation.

But my issue here is not the comparison between modern Egyptian Arabic 
and other modern dialects, it is between modern Egyptian Arabic and the 
dialect of the Qur'an, as indicated by the spelling of the article in 
the oldest Qur'an MSS.

>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.
I take the point. But it seems to me rather likely that  ج Jiim was 
pronounced like English G rather than J at the time of the Qur'an and 
the dispersal of Arabic across the Muslim world, and the pronunciation 
shift to J came later. It is much less likely that Egyptian Arabic 
reversed the pronunciation change.

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

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