The article of reflection

The definite article al- (alif and lām) in Arabic can denote several different things. One of its uses is to direct the reader’s or listener’s attention to the origin of a particular word. Most personal names had a known original meaning before they came to be used as names. Once these words begin to be used as names, they lose their original meanings and are simply used to refer to a particular person. For example, the name ʿādil means “just”. But when it is used as a given name – rather than as an active participle describing a notably just and equitable person – it can refer to anyone who happens to have the name ʿādil, whether he be just or otherwise. In order to use the word ʿādil to refer to both a particular person as well as a specific character trait, we can attach al- to the beginning of the name. While Al-Hasan is the name of a particular person, the alif and lām at the start ensure that our attention is also drawn towards the word’s original meaning (i.e. “the handsome, the good”).

Much the same phenomenon can be seen in our understanding and usage of language in general. We seldom reflect over the words we use, and this result in them losing their dynamic quality. When we hear a word we rarely think about its origin, what other words it is related to, what form the word has, etc. Rather, the word is used only to refer to a specific thing, whether concrete or abstract, and our thoughts rarely, if ever, go beyond this. When we hear the word miḥrāb, for example, we usually only think about the particular object that this word refers to today, without giving thought to its original meaning in terms of the relationship between its root and form.

It is the job of all of us who are interested in languages to adopt a reflective attitude towards language by, metaphorically speaking, adding the definite article to all its words. This way, we will be able to move beyond the superficialities of language and plunge into its meaningful depths.

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