The Definite Article in Arabic

Overview

The Arabic definite article, corresponding to “the” in English, is composed of the letters Āalif + lām: ال. It is not an independent word, but is always prefixed to the noun or adjective it is defining. There is only this one form of the definite article in Arabic, irrespective of the gender or number of the word being defined.

In Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is the starting point of our discussion, ال is pronounced al (and written Āal in our transcription system) when the following two conditions are met:

  • ال begins a sentence or utterance, or is said after a pause in speech
  • the letter immediately after ال does not assimilate the lām (such letters are known as “moon letters”, as opposed to the assimilating “sun letters”; these two types of letters will be discussed below)

Examples:

Indefinite Definite
(a) manager mudīr
مُدير the manager Āalmudīr
المُدير
(a) girl bint
بِنْت the girl Āalbint
البِنْت
books kutub
كُتُب the books Āalkutub
الكُتُب

Note that there is no indefinite article in Arabic (although nunation, which is usually a marker of indefiniteness, is sometimes referred to as the Arabic indefinite article). Where English uses “a” or “an”, Arabic simply uses the singular form of the noun. Thus, mudīr / مُدير, for example, can mean “manager” or “a manager”.

The only time the definite article is not written ال is when a lām is prefixed to it. This most often occurs with the preposition li / لِ (“to” or “for”), which is pronounced la / لَ in Lebanese Arabic. When this preposition is prefixed to the definite article, the Āalif is dropped, resulting in, for example, lilbint / لِلْبِنْت or lalbint / لَلْبِنْت (“to/for the girl”).

The definite article has a wider range of uses in Arabic than it does in English. It is often used in Arabic where English would use an undefined generic or abstract noun, such as “vegetables” (ĀalЌuDār / الخُضار) or “literature” (ĀalĀadab / الأَدَب).

All words with the definite article are definite; however, not all words without it are indefinite. Nouns which take a suffix pronoun are definite, e.g. kutubnā / كُتُبْنا (“our books”). Names of cities, countries, specific places or people – in short, anything that is a proper noun – are definite even if they do not have the definite article. Many proper nouns do, however, have the definite article, e.g. ĀalĀurdun / الأُرْدُن (“Jordan”).

Pronunciation

Pronunciation of ا

In the examples used so far, we have transcribed ال as Āal. Note that Āa actually represents the consonant hamzaŧ (ء) and its vowel (fatHaŧ), and not the Āalif itself. At the beginning of a word, Āalif is never a vowel – no Arabic word can begin with a vowel – but is always a “seat” (kursī / كُرْسي) for hamzaŧ. Although the hamzaŧ symbol is not written on the Āalif of the definite article, it is important to remember that it is still present. (The grammatical term for this unwritten hamzat is hamzat lwaSl / هَمزَة الوَصْل, which means “the hamzaŧ of conjunction”.)

Not only is this hamzaŧ not written, it is also not pronounced in MSA except when the definite article begins a sentence or utterance, or is said after a pause in speech. If there is an immediately preceding word, then the hamzat and its vowel (Āa) are not pronounced and the lām is pronounced as if it were part of the preceding word.

Examples:

I know the manager. Āa3rifu lmudīr.
.أَعْرِفُ المُدير
The girl’s pen is new. qalamu lbinti jadīd.
.قَلَمُ البِنْتِ جَديد
He likes Arabic books. yuHibbu lkutuba l3arabiyyaŧ.
.يُحِبُّ الكُتُبَ العَرَبِيَّة

In colloquial Lebanese Arabic, Āa is typically not pronounced at all, regardless of whether there is a preceding word. Only l is pronounced.

In Arabic script, the ا of the definite article is written even if it is not pronounced, with one exception: when a ل is prefixed to the definite article.

Pronunciation of ل

In both MSA and Lebanese Arabic, the lām of the definite article is sometimes assimilated to, or pronounced the same as, the first letter of the word it is defining. Letters to which lām assimilates are traditionally referred to as sun letters, and letters to which it does not as moon letters.

Sun Letters (ĀalĀaHruf ššamsiyyaŧ / الأَحْرُف الشَّمْسِيَّة)

The sun letters are as follows:

ن ل ظ ط ض ص ش س ز ر ذ د *ج ث ت

* Note that ج is classified as a moon letter in MSA. However, it is often pronounced as a sun letter in colloquial Lebanese Arabic (and sometimes even in formal Arabic). Therefore, we list it as a sun letter as well as a moon letter.

When the definite article is prefixed to a word starting with one of the sun letters, the lām of the definite article is not pronounced as such. It is instead assimilated to the sun letter, which is then pronounced as a doubled consonant. This action is represented in Arabic script by the addition of a shaddaŧ ( ـّ ) to the sun letter. In transcription, we write the assimilated lām as the letter to which it has been assimilated.

Examples (Lebanese Arabic pronunciation*):

the sun l + šamis ššamis
الشَّمِس ال + شَمِس
the notebook l + daftar ddaftar
الدَّفْتَر ال + دَفْتَر
the table l + Tāwleŧ TTāwleŧ
الطّاوْلِة ال + طاوْلِة
the watch l + sē3aŧ ssē3aŧ
السّاعَة ال + ساعَة

* Bear in mind that in MSA pronunciation, the doubled consonant will be preceded by Āa (hamzat + fatHaŧ) when it begins a sentence or utterance, or is said after a pause in speech.

Moon Letters (ĀalĀaHruf lqamariyyaŧ / الأَحْرُف القَمَرِيَّة)

The moon letters are as follows:

ي و هـ م ك ق ف غ ع خ ح ج ب أ

When the definite article is prefixed to a word starting with one of the moon letters, no assimilation takes place. The lām is pronounced, followed by the moon letter.

Examples (Lebanese Arabic pronunciation*):

the moon l + Āamar lĀamar
القَمَر ال + قَمَر
the key l + miftēH lmiftēH
المِفْتاح ال + مِفْتاح
the house l + bét lbét
البيت ال + بيت
the condition l + Hāl lHāl
الحال ال + حال

* Bear in mind that in MSA pronunciation, the l will be preceded by Āa (hamzat + fatHaŧ) when it begins a sentence or utterance, or is said after a pause in speech.

In Arabic script, the ل of the definite article is always written, regardless of whether it is followed by a sun letter or a moon letter.

Additional Pronunciation Rules

In this section, we look at some pronunciation rules which have to do with avoiding unacceptable consonant clusters in Arabic. Although these rules are of more general application, our specific interest here is in how they apply to the definite article.

Addition of a kasraŧ (Lebanese Arabic only)

In Lebanese Arabic, if a moon letter is not immediately followed by a vowel, then a kasraŧ (i) is added to the lām of the definite article to facilitate pronunciation and avoid a three-consonant cluster, which is generally not permitted in Arabic.

Examples:

the book l + ktēb liktēb
الِكْتاب ال + كْتاب
the horse l + HSān liHSān
الِحْصان ال + حْصان

Note that this rule applies specifically to colloquial Arabic, where words often begin with two consecutive consonants. In MSA, by contrast, it is not possible for a word to begin with two consecutive consonants. The first consonant in the word is always followed by a vowel; thus, for example, “book” is pronounced kitāb / كِتاب in MSA (as opposed to ktēb / كْتاب in Lebanese) and “horse” is pronounced HiSān / حِصان in MSA (as opposed to HSān / حْصان in Lebanese).

Liaison with the Definite Article

When the definite article does not begin a sentence or utterance, as mentioned previously, the hamzat and its vowel (Āa) are not pronounced and the lām is pronounced as if it were part of the preceding word. Sometimes, however, the preceding word ends in a consonant. In this case, a short helping vowel is pronounced before the definite article in order to avoid a three-consonant cluster.

Which helping vowel is pronounced depends upon whether you are speaking Lebanese Arabic or MSA.

Liaison in Lebanese Arabic

In Lebanese Arabic, the helping vowel is always a kasraŧ (i). Naturally, this helping vowel does not need to be added if a kasraŧ has already been added to the lām of the definite article, as in liHSān / الِحْصان, since there is no three-consonant cluster in that case.

Examples (Lebanese Arabic):

If the first word is composed of three Arabic letters and has a Dammaŧ (u) or kasraŧ (i) before the final consonant, then this vowel is usually dropped.

Liaison in MSA

In fully vocalized MSA, there are three short vowel suffixes which are added to words as grammatical case endings: Dammaŧ (u), fatHaŧ (a), and kasraŧ (i). These case endings effectively serve as a liaison between words. For words which end with a sukūn (i.e. no vowel), liaison with the following word is usually effected by replacing the sukūn with a kasraŧ. In a few words, it is replaced with a fatHaŧ.

Examples:

 

Related
The Arabic Alphabet: A Guide to the Phonology and Orthography of MSA and Lebanese Arabic
Writing and Pronouncing the Hamza (ء): A Guide for the Perplexed

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top