The Definite Article

Words are made definite in Arabic by attaching أل to the beginning of the word. For example, مُدَرِّس means “a teacher”. “The teacher” is rendered by ألْمُدَرِّس. The only difference is that we have attached the definite article أل to the noun. The definite article is always attached to the noun. Note that there is a sukuun over the ل of the definite article and that the ل is written in initial form.

If a word begins with the letters ب ج ح خ ع غ ف ق ك م ه و ي or with a hamza (which will be seated on an alif), we place a sukuun on the ل of the definite and pronounce the ل. Thus ألْمُدَرِّس is pronounced “almudarris”.

If a word begins with any of the rest of the letters of the alphabet something else happens. Let’s take the Arabic word for sun, شَمْس and make it definite. We add أل to شَمْس just as we would to any other word and we get أَلشَّمس . Can you see what is different? First of all, there is no sukuun on the ل of the definite article. Second, there is a shadda over the ش which is the first letter of the indefinite noun. The ل has been assimilated into the ش and will not be pronounced. Consequently أَلشَّمس is pronounced ash-shams. In this situation you can tell that the word is definite by the sound of the hamza and the fatha, and by hearing the shadda on the ش. You will not hear the ل at all. However, the ل must be written. The letters which cause the J to be assimilated are:

ت ث د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ل ن

This group of letters is known as the “sun letters” حروف شمسية . because they all assimilate the ل just as the ش does in the word شمس The first group of letters, those which require that a sukuun be placed on the ل , are known as “moon letters” حروف قمرية because the word for moon قمر begins with ق which does not require assimilation of the ل.

Students usually balk when they first learn of this phenomenon. Often they try to memorize which letters are sun letters and which are moon letters. Normally, I do not recommend that a student do so. Instead, under normal circumstances, a student can learn when to assimilate the J and when not to by listening to the instructor, to the tapes that usually accompany the standard Arabic text books, and by speaking Arabic in class. However, if you are reading this book it is likely that you are not studying Arabic under normal circumstances and you may wish to memorize the sun and moon letters. One thing that may help you a lot (and also facilitates learning which letters are which when you practice speaking and listening) is that the sun letters are all pronounced near the front of the mouth, while the moon letters, with the exception of the ج and the و, are pronounced further back.

Since Arabic texts are virtually never vocalized, you will not see the shadda on the first letter of a definite word beginning with a sun letter, nor will you see the sukuun on the ل when a word begins with a moon letter. You will already have to know what to do every time you see a word with the definite article. At the end of this chapter is a drill which will give you some practice.

Lest you think that Arabic is a tough language and that even making a word definite entails quite a hassle, be aware that the definite article in Arabic does not show gender, number, or case, unlike other languages supposedly easier than Arabic.

It might also interest you to know that the definite article is often part of Arabic names, especially surnames. This is why you may have seen Arabic names in the newspapers beginning with “al” and then with a dash separating the article from the name. Since most (but not all) American journalists working the Middle East are so unfamiliar with the language that they do not even know how to use the definite article, you sometimes will see names such as السادات spelled al-Sadat at one point and as-Sadat at another point. When radio and television journalists read these names out loud, they do not know what to do with the “al”. Sometimes, it becomes a middle initial “L” as in Anwar L. Sadat. Don’t be an ignoramus like an American journalist. Learn how to pronounce the definite article. Go do Drill 1 at the end of this chapter now. Then come back and start reading below.

6 comments… add one
  • just a short comment: on the online quiz of drill 1 ( لغة is stated to start with a moon letter, which is, as of my knowledge and of this page, incorrect.

    • The quiz was corrected. Thank you for pointing that out. Sorry it took so long to correct it.

  • Thank you so much for making this available. As more students discover this text you’ve put up, there will be a lot of traffic here.

    One comment, though. The alifs of the definite articles *do not* carry hamzas. They are ‘elidable’ (meaning they connect with the previous word) and are usually written without any symbols. It’s only in holy texts that you regularly find a special symbol on top of them.

  • The first paragraph states that the ل is written in medial form. How is it possible to write a letter in medial form when it is preceded by an alif? The ل is written in initial form.

    • Yes, you are right. The alif is written in the initial form in this case. Thanks so much for the feedback. I made the change in the post.

  • The trick with lam shamsiyyah is to remember that all the shamsiyyah letters are pronounced with the tip of the tongue. All the qamariyyah letters are either further back or are pronounced with the lips (m, b) or lips and teeth (f)


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