What Does the Arabic Prefix “al-” Mean?

Gina asks: What does “al” mean in Arabic?

arabic-stoneRoughly translated to “the,” the Arabic word “al-” is prefixed to nouns to make them definite. For example: “kitab ‘book’ can be made definite by prefixing it with al-, resulting in al-kitab ‘the book’.

Comprised of two letters, ālif (ā) and Lām (l), frequently, al- is placed in front of proper nouns, and in particular, the names of locations, such as al-Anbār; note that even when used with a proper noun, al- is left lower case.

The “l” in al- is sometimes silent, but only when al- is followed by one of the sun letters, which are (as transliterated): t, th, d, z, r, z, s, sh, s, d, t, ẓ, l and n. This is why Damascus, in colloquial Arabic, is pronounced Ash-Shām, not Al-Shām.

When al- precedes one of the moon letters: ā, b, j, h, kh, ع̛, gh, f, q, k, m, h, W (aw, au, u) and Y (ay, ai, ī), then the “l” is clearly pronounced.

It should be noted that the prefix al- should not be confused with “the form Āl, a different Arabic construction that is used to designate a family or tribal name.” With the latter, the pronunciation does not change regardless of the letter that follows Āl. In addition, as a part of a proper name, Āl is always written with a capital “A.”

There are several competing theories on the etymology of al-. Some claim:

Al- comes directly from the Arabic negating particle , lā . . . [where] the lām [l] and ālif [ā] swapped positions. It is noteworthy that the negation denoted by lā and the definiteness denoted by al- are in stark contrast to each other . . . . A[nother] popular theory is that al- comes from the same proto-Semitic source as the Hebrew definite article ha- . . . . According to [an expert], many . . . Semitic languages have particles that bear similarities to al-.

Notably, the prefix el- is simply “a different way of writing the same word.” It is said that el- more closely resembles the word’s proper pronunciation, but al- is the more accepted version, at least in America.

The most common uses of the prefix occur when the listener is already aware of the definite noun being referenced, when referring to a “class noun” (i.e., “the Mercedes is an excellent car”) as well as, of course, at the beginning of some names.

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Bonus Facts:

  • In previous centuries, according to at least one commentator: “When [Arabic speakers] hear[d] Al or El or L, they assume[d] that it was not an integral part of the word or the name. Thus, when they encountered the name Alexander they assumed that [was] actually Al-Eksander and dropped the AL. Alexander later was naturalized in Arabic in the form of Iskander . . . . [Likewise] Arabic [speakers] who heard the name Lawrence took it for “Orens” with the Al prefix.” As a result, T.E. Lawrence was sometimes called Urens, Orens, and Aurens.
  • There are a lot of English words with their roots in the Arabic al-; these include: adobe (al-toba ), alchemy (al-ki:mi:a), alcohol (al-koh”l), alcove (al-qobbah), alfalfa (alfas), algebra (al-jebr) (see: Where the Word “Algebra” Came From), algorithm (al-Khowarazmi), alkali (al-qaliy), almanac (al-mana:kh), apricot (al-burquq), artichoke (al-kharshu:f) and azure (al-lazward).
  • We also owe most of our mathematics to the Islamic world, which introduced Europeans to Arabic numerals. After Indians invented the symbolic system for numbers, and zero around 500 A.D., the Islamic world adopted the system. At the turn of the 13th century, Fibonacci (an Italian) learned of that system while in Algeria, and he later introduced Europe to Arabic numerals in his book Liber Abaci.
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6 comments

  • Hello sir or madam.

    Why ‘el’ in spanish and ‘al’ in arabic sound so similar and have the exact same meaning; ‘the’? Is it because of the roman empire in north Africa, the arabic empire’s invasion in Spain or something else? I’m curious. I’d appreciate a detailed answer : D

  • Hi! In fact, it comes from Latin. On the website you posted they explain it: “the Spanish definite articles el / la / lo / los / las, like most definite articles in the Romance languages, derive from the Latin demonstratives ille / illa / illud. The similarity to the Arabic article al is a mere coincidence.”

  • Hi. This is confusing because there are many place names in the Iberian peninsula with AL- prefix. Many in Portugal are in areas where I understand that Berber tribes were (in the time of the Al-Andalus moorish occupation) so the origin of these place names cannot be Arab. e.g. Alcains, Alcongosta, Alcaria, Alpiarca. The Berbers had their own language. Languages do not usually use a definite article before the name, for example we don’t say “go to the London”. I understand that also AL- was a celtic prefix meaning “on top of” and ALC- “on a hill”. I would appreciate some help here as I am in the middle of a serious challenge about the origin of towns and villages which I simply do not believe were Arab. The Iberian (especially the western side) had consisted of celtic tribes, which continued in post-roman times, presumably keeping their celtic names.

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