Helping Vowels and the Elidable Hamza

We have already seen the definite article in Arabic – أل . The first letter of the article is actually the hamza. The hamza is seated on an alif. The alif has no phonetic value when it is a seat for the hamza. The vowel on the hamza is a fatha. Whenever a definite word begins a sentence we always pronounce hamza and its fatha. However, look at this: أنتَ المدير “You are the director.” The normal American student will read this as “Anta almudiir” but the Arab will read it “Antalmudir.” Oh no.

Here is what has happened. The hamza, when written on the definite article, and on some other words, none of which have been introduced yet, will disappear when it is preceded by another word. In the sentence above أنتَ comes before المدير. The final fatha of the word أنتَ kicks out the hamza (elides the hamza) completely along with the fatha written over the hamza. Thus instead of having “fatha – hamza – fatha” followed by the ل , we now have only the first fatha and the ل. The first fatha followed by the ل make the Arab’s pronunciation of our sentence above sound like one word. The hamza and fatha of the definite article will always be replaced by the final vowel of the preceding word. Thus أنتِ المديرة is pronounced “Antilmudiira.” Please note that in this lesson no other word which begins with hamza will lose the hamza in this way. For now, only the hamza on the definite article will elide. In future lessons I will tell you how to know when to elide the hamza.

When the hamza is elided a “wasla” is written in its place. The wasla looks like a dhamma with a tail and is written over the alif. The wasla, like other diacritical markers, is usually written only in the Qur’an, children’s books, and in some text books. It will not be used in this text.

Now, what do you think happens if you make a word definite which begins with a sun letter and then elide the hamza? For example, how would you pronounce أنت الطّالبُ ? The Arab will say Antattaalib.” Here the hamza and its fatha are elided just as before, but since طالب begins with a sun letter we do not pronounce the ل of the definite article. Instead we go all the way over to the ط and pronounce it with a shadda.

As you will see as you go through this book, most Arabic words will end with some sort of vowel. (This is because nouns and adjectives usually have case endings and the case endings are vowels.) However, we have already seen some Arabic words which do not. Examples are هَل, مَن and مِنْ. So what happens if we want to say: هل المدير بليد؟ . In most cases, whenever the hamza of the definite article is preceded by a word which does not end in a vowel, we add the vowel kasra to that word and it elides the hamza. Thus in the sentence above we add a kasra to هل getting هَل المدير pronounced “halilmudiir.” The only exception to this rule so far is the word مِنْ. When it precedes the definite article we add to it a helping vowel of fatha. This is the only word in the language to which we will add a fatha as a helping vowel. In later lessons you will learn when to add a dhamma as a helping vowel – and that is all there is to know.

Reality Check

Some instructors and some textbooks are very strict about eliding the hamza and the use of helping vowels. In fact, you will hear a lot of these things done when listening to news broadcasts. However, in other situations when native speakers of Arabic are speaking in MSA, especially in interviews and in discussion formats, there is less elision of the hamza and the dhamma and fatha are not usually used as helping vowels. Instead, when a speaker uses a helping vowel, it is usually a kasra, which is what is often done in colloquial Arabic.

5 comments… add one
  • I am teaching myself Arabic, and after learning about hamza elision and sun letters, I was going crazy trying to figure out how the two fit together. Your explanation was so simple and restored my sanity! thank you!

  • Jazakallah khairan, when I read the Quran, i never understood the reason for the wasla and you made it easy to grasp, thank you!

  • I am confused. I don’t get it. 🙁

  • Salam

    In the Quran I found some لي that has a fathah on the ya letter. What is the purpose of this? Is it a helping vowel?

    • Which ayah are you referring to?


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