Arabic, heraldry, Languages

Classical Arabic Grammar — diatrical marks, the definite article, sun letters, and moon letters.

There are several things to consider when romanizing Arabic– vowel sounds and diacritical marks being particularly important, together with understanding how different consonants behave with the definite article أل — ‘al‘. There are several different transliteration systems, which represent the letters and diacritical marks in slightly different ways. Further, there are also various dialects of Arabic, both within the medieval period, and modernly. Modernly, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the standard used to write Arabic across most of the Middle East, regardless of local vocal dialects, and is also the name given to the form of Arabic spoken as MSA is written (see  Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi 1996 for example). In the Medieval Period, a form of Arabic known today as Classical or Qu’ranic Arabic was used. Classical Arabic became prevalent from the 7th century onwards — essentially as the Qu’ran was written down, codified, and transmitted (see for example: Al-Jallad 2011). As Islam spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe, so did Classical Arabic.

Classical Arabic became a lingua franca across these areas primarily due to religious reasons. In Islam, it is incumbent on every Muslim to read the Qu’ran (see Ayoub). However, a translation of the Qu’ran is not considered to be the Qu’ran, since it is considered man’s interpretation of Allah’s word. Thus, being able to at least read and understand Arabic became important across the Islamosphere. This then naturally lent itself to become a written and spoken (since prayers are also conducted in Classical Arabic) lingua franca, since in theory everyone should have comprehended it. Due to this, it was important that Classical Arabic include vowels, omission of letters, and consonant doubling, since even minor changes in vowel sound can change the meaning and intent of a word. Thus, Classical Arabic is usually written with full diacritical marks, preserving spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

MSA is a modernization of Classical Arabic, however, it remains very close to its roots of Classical Arabic, to the point that native Arabic speakers do not differentiate between the two ( Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi 1996).

In this post, I am going to concentrate on how ‘al‘ behaves in Classical Arabic. ‘al‘ is the definite article in Arabic, and is used extensively in the laqab and nisba portions of names (See this for example). In order to understand the behavior, we first need to understand the basics of the Arabic alphabet, and diacritical marks used.

The Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, and much like Hebrew, is strictly considered an “abjad” — a series of consonants rather than vowels and consonants (see for example Daniels & Bright 1996). Classical Arabic is considered an “impure abjad”, since it has representations of its three long vowel sounds (aa, uu, ii), as well as using diacritical marks to indicate short vowel sounds, consonant doubling, and vowel omission. Most of the letters also have context-dependent forms — an initial letter looks different from the same letter in the middle of a word or at the end.

Short vowel sounds in Classical Arabic are indicated by diacritical marks with respect to the consonant that the vowel follows, as is the case when no vowel sound is present, and when a consonant is doubled (see for example Thackston 1995).

The Diacritical Marks (not all of them!)

As an example, I’m going to demonstrate how the meaning of the Arabic word root ‘ك-ت-ب’ — ‘K-T-B’ changes with different vowel and diacritical markings.

  • Fatha ؘ This is a diagonal stroke above the consonant, and represents the short vowel sound ‘a’. For example, the word كَتَبَ — ‘kataba’ — ‘he writes’
  • Kasra ؚ This is a diagonal stroke below the consonant, and represents the short vowel sound ‘i’. For example, كِتاب — ‘kitaab‘ — ‘book’
  • Damma ؙ This is a small letter ‘waw’ — و placed above the consonant, and represents the short vowel sound ‘u’. For example, كُتُبُ — ‘kutubu‘ — ‘his books’
  • Sukun ْ When this symbol is seen over a consonant, it means that there is no vowel sound associated with the consonant. It is seen most commonly in Classical Arabic, for the reasons discussed above as regards context, and meaning. For example — كَتَبْتُ — ‘katabtu‘ — ‘I wrote’
  • Shadda ّ This symbol indicates that the consonant it is placed over is doubled (double consonants are never written explicitly in Classical Arabic). For example كُتَيِّب — ‘kutayyib’— ‘booklet’.

Its clear from the examples above that vowel placement is critical in accurately determining the appropriate transliteration and meaning of words.

Sun and Moon Letters

The consonants of Arabic are divided into ‘sun’ letters and ‘moon’ letters, or less prosaically, assimilating and non-assimilating consonants.

An assimilating consonant is one that makes the definite article, ‘al‘, drop the lam and take it as the ending of the definite article. For example رَحيم — ‘Raheem‘ meaning ‘merciful’, becomes الْرَّحيم — ‘ar-Raheem’ meaning ‘the merciful’ and not الرَحيم — ‘al-Raheem‘.

A non-assimilating consonant does nothing to the lam; for instance مُبَرَك — ‘Mubarak’, meaning blessed is simply المُبَرَك ‘al-Mubarak’ meaning ‘the blessed’.

As a general rule, the coronal consonants (i.e. those pronounced using the front part of the tongue — dental, sibilant, and liquid consonants), are sun letters, while the rest are moon letters (see for example Thackston 1995). These are detailed in the table below.

Sun Letter ArabicTransliteration/NameMoon Letter ArabicTransliteration/Name
t/taء‘ /hamza
Classical Arabic Sun and Moon Letters

The Definite Article in Names

The definite article in Arabic — أل, pronounced ‘al‘ is used extensively in the laqab and nisba portions of names — see for example for more detail.

Much like in French, where la and le omit the vowel when placed in front of a word that starts with a vowel, when placed in front of a word that begins with a sun letter, the ‘l’ (lam) in al assimilates the next consonant. For example, when placed in front of ‘Zahra’ (radiant): زٓهراء in Classical Arabic, as ز is a sun letter, the lam in al assimilates the consonant.

Since this article is focused on the use of the definite article to produce laqab and nasab in the medieval era, Classical Arabic grammar should be used to form these laqab and nasab.

So, if we wanted to create the laqab “The Radiant”, it would be written as: الزَّھراء . Note here the the shadda above the z that indicates the doubling of the consonant. Thus, we would transliterate and pronounce الزَّھراء as ‘az-Zahra’ rather than ‘al-Zahra’ (since the purpose of fully vocalized Arabic is to ensure that words and grammar is recorded correctly).

On the other hand, if we wanted to create a laqab using مُبَرَك– ‘Mubarak’ (blessed), as mim is a moon letter, it would be written as الْمٗبَرَك and translated as ‘al-Mubarak’ (the blessed), and the lam (l) has a sukun over it to indicate that there is no vowel following the consonant.


 Al-Jallad, Ahmad (2011-05-30). "Polygenesis in the Arabic Dialects"Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics.

Mahmoud M. Ayoub, The Quran in Muslim Life and Practice

Daniels, Peter T. & Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World’s Writing Systems. OUP. p. 4. ISBN 978-0195079937.

Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi. Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said M. Badawi, 1996. Page 105.

Wheeler McIntosh Thackston, 1996 An Introduction to Koranic Arabic IBEX Press

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