November 08, 2005

The Definite Article in Central Semitic Languages

My previous post implys that the definite article in Hebrew (ha- + gemination) and Arabic ('al- or 'a- + gemination) are cognate. I wasn't sure about that, so spent next few days combing the web in a vein effort to find some information on the subject. I found some bits and pieces, but, to my surprise, no direct treatment of the subject, either cursory or in-depth. Until, somehow reading my mind, Jabal al-Lughat himself, in a response to my post, gave me exactly what I was looking for! The following is mostly based on his post, and the discussion it generated. But it includes my own speculation, based on very little evidence, so reader beware!

Evidence in favor of cognates:

1. ha- and 'al- have identical, and somewhat unusual, behavior

2. ha- induces gemination, implying assimilation of a consonant (l?)

3. there are some cases where Hebrew: h corresponds to Arabic: '

Evidence against cognates:

1. The h ~ ' correspondence is not a regular Hebrew/Arabic correspondence

2. The only letter in Hebrew that regularly assimilates to a following consonant is: n, not: l

So what's going on? Let's look at a chart of Hebrew and Arabic demonstratives, to get a better picture. I've added Aramaic to give more breadth. (If anyone can give me the data for other Central Semitic languages, I'll add it!)

this this trans. these these trans. the
זה, זאת ze, zoot אלה, הללו eelle, hallaaluuha- + gemination
Arabic هَذَا hadhaa أُولاءِ 'uulaa'al-, a- + gemination
Aramaic הא, הן, דא haa, haan, daa הני haanneey-aa (postfixed)

Notes: The Hebrew transcriptions depart from my usual orthography by indicating long vowels and gemination, ze is masculine, zoot feminine, hallaaluu is attested in Hebrew only from the Talmudic period.

So it looks to me like Hebrew ha- and Arabic al- come from Proto-Central Semitic "this" and "these", respectively. Since they have identical, and somewhat unusual behavior (they are applied to both nouns and their adjectives, but to only the last noun in a compound), my guess would be that the Proto-Central Semitic article agreed in gender and number with its noun (as adjectives do). Later, after the two languages split, different forms became generalized.

Here is how Andrzej Zaborski interprets this (and other) evidence:

The Arabic, Canaanite and Modern South Arabian definite article has a common origin and goes back to an original demonstrative pronoun which was a compound inflected for gender, number and probably also for case. It can be reconstructed as *han(V)- for masc. sing., *hat(V)- for fem. sing. and *hal(V)- for plural. Assimilations of -n- and -t- to the following consonant (including -n-l- > -ll- and -t-l- > ll) neutralized the opposition of gender and number and led to a reinterpretation of either hal/’al- or han/’an->’am- synchronically as basic variant. In Aramaic the suffixed definite article was due not to simple suffixation of ha but to a resegmentation of the postposed compound demonstrative ha-ze-[n(a)] and suffixation of enclitic ha > -a which has been generalized.

So are they cognates? Well, I wouldn't say they are not!

UPDATE: As I was writing this, Jabal al-Lughat posted again, on the subject of behavior of articles.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at November 8, 2005 11:16 PM | TrackBacks
Comments & Trackbacks

Actually, I can learn Arabic with the help of your posts :). Fine, that I've found them.

Posted by: Daleela at December 24, 2005 08:35 PM Permalink

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