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

Peter Kirk peter at qaya.org
Mon Dec 19 06:11:34 EST 2005

On 18/12/2005 21:50, Herman Meester wrote:

> ...
>No, I think laam is always meant as -L-, be it to be actually
>pronounced, or "virtually".
>All I do suggest is:
>* say we have a type of spelling (i.e. Arabic spelling) where the
>pausal form is the way a word is represented, not the context form
>(i.e. each word is spelled as if it stands alone). For this we have
>thousands of examples all over each Arabic text: - taa marbuuta (in
>context, usually pronounced (in classical Arabic grammar) as -t-, but
>never written as taa'; - alif al-wasl for stems vii, viii, x (surely
>no historical hamz!), and some more.
>* this means, we have no attempt at phonetic speling, rather a certain
>artificial approach to spelling;
>* then we see that there is an "article" that was originally only
>* however, because of dissimilation in certain consonants, in quite a
>few cases the "article" looks like -l-
>* the, in a way very practical, thought comes up (speakers/users of
>Arabic not always being interested in comparative linguistics nor in
>phonetic spelling, just as it goes with any language): "that laam must
>be something real; we may not pronounce it all the time, but let's
>write it whenever we think it "is there/could have been there", i.e.
>in the definition marker of nouns."
>* then we don't really have the Laam as a sign of gemination, we just
>have a certain interpretation of the dissimilated laam as the "real"

OK, I understand you. If this is really how Arabic spelling developed, 
you may have a point. But I suspect that in fact the written language 
reflects reasonably accurately a particular stage of historic spoken 
Arabic - perhaps approximately that of the originally spoken Qur'an, 
because that seems to have become an orthographic standard. In that 
stage of Arabic taa' marbuta was I think always pronounced something 
like "t", but maybe in fact not quite the same as taa' (perhaps an 
aspirated t, or something like English "th") which would explain it 
being written differently. Of course the Arabic and general Semitic 
writing system required a consonant at the start of a word, and so alif 
was written even there is no glottal stop as also in long A vowels. Of 
course this was an ambiguity in the writing system, but then it is well 
known that Arabic writing at this time was ambiguous e.g. no vowel 
marking, certain consonant distinctions not fully made.

>... (quoting Tropper)
>"In the Arabic branch [of Semit. lang. HM], the situation of the
>definite articles that we find is complex... The article (')al-  [sic,
>I wonder why not ('a)l- ? HM] of classical Arabic seems to differ
>completely from the epigraphic material of early Northern Arabic
>dialects; the latter, like Canaanitic, have as the normal form h-."
This is clearly because Qur'anic Arabic was not a Northern Arabic 
dialect, i.e. one from around Damascus and Petra which is where I think 
the oldest material comes from (and which would have been strongly 
influenced by Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite and Edomite which I think all 
had h- for the article, in texts in which gemination is not marked), but 
one from much further south, where the article had developed a slightly 
different form. But yes, the situation is complex.

> ...
>>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.
>Or ages prior to that; ...

Possibly. But we don't have any evidence, or only a very small amount, 
for writing in this part of Arabia before the Qur'an - and we know there 
were at least different writing conventions in northern Arabia.


>>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.
>I have to take a good look at that. The only Qur'an I have at home is
>the traditional text. However, I think the oldest MSS are unvocalised,
>so of little use to us: they'll all show the alif, the laam, ...

But that was my point! It is the alif and the laam, consonants not vowel 
marks, which I want you to look at, in the very oldest surviving 
Qur'ans. You don't need vocalisation to confirm that the article was 
written alif-laam before any word in the earliest surviving texts in 
this dialect of Arabic.

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

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