In English, the addition of the article “the” turns an indefinite noun into a definite one. The definite article in Arabic does the exact same thing.

The article The in Arabic is ال

You’ll find al in Arabic surnames, adjectives, and all nouns.

To break it down, the definition article consists of two Arabic letters: أ referred to as alif, and ل referred to as lam. Together they look like this: ال.

This definite article applies to all words, and that means it does not put number or gender into consideration. It is an addition that can tag along to any word.

Is there an indefinite article? The answer is yes and no. Unlike English, Arabic morphology uses no articles to confirm indefiniteness. However, this does not mean that there are no indefinite nouns. Instead of using “a” or “an”, Arabic simply uses the singular form of the word to announce its indefiniteness. Tanween (nunation) is a recognized indefinite marker, and it is due to that reason that it is sometimes referred to as the indefinite article or marker of the Arabic language.

If you notice, the /l/ sound from the article al disappears with some words. This goes back to the sun and moon letters. Sun letters blend in or assimilate the lam and are not pronounced, while the moon letters do not do this and the lam in the al definite article is pronounced and heard clearly.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of the definite article “al”:

وَلَد‎ /walad means Boy in Arabic

الوَلَد‎ /alwalad/ means The boy in Arabic

دب /dobb/ means Bear in Arabic

الدب /adobb/ means The bear in Arabic

The first two examples were nouns: the first using the moon letter ب /ba/, and the second using the sun letter د /dal/.

Now, let’s see how the al article applies to adjectives:

بطيء /batee’/ means slow

البطيء /albatee’/ means the slow

سريع /saree’/ means fast

السريع /asaree’/ means the fast

Notice that the first uses the moon letter ب /ba/ and the second uses the sun letter س /sin/.  

How do I know if a word is definite or indefinite?

The answer is simple for definite: check if it contains the Arabic al article. However, the indefinite is another story. The assumption that all words with no al are indefinite is actually incorrect. Words that contain a pronoun at its suffix are considered definite words as well. For example, the word ساحة pronounced /saha/ means field or arena, and is indefinite. If we add the pronoun “نا”, it becomes ساحتنا /sahatuna/, meaning “our field/arena”. We can also add al to it like this: الساحة /asaha/, meaning the field or arena.

In English, proper nouns are naturally capitalized no matter where they are in the sentence, right? In Arabic syntax and morphology, proper nouns are also a natural when it comes to being definite. With or without the al, they are also definite. This does not mean that Arabic proper nouns are not allowed to use the article al. For example: بحرين which is /Bahrain/, can also be written with al like this: البحرين /al Bahrain/. 

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