In the world of linguistics, certain phenomena emerge from one language to another that are more important than they appear. For example, Polish family names often end in ‘-ski’, Armenian names in ‘-ian’ and, in the case of Arabic names, there’s a striking familiarity with the prefix ‘al-‘. But what does it mean?
Consider names such as Safwan al-Masri or Ahmad al-Souri. Beneath the surface lies a reflection of geographical origin. ‘Masri’ denotes Egyptian, while ‘Souri’ signifies Syrian. These names are windows into an individual’s roots. In this case, ‘Al’ is attached to the words ‘Masri’ and ‘Souri.’ Safwan al-Masri means Safwan the Egyptian, whereas Ahmad al-Souri means Ahmad the Syrian.
As these cases reveal, ‘Al’ in Arabic is not merely an identifier; it’s a word with a grammatical function. ‘Al’ serves as the definite article in Arabic, equivalent to the English word ‘the.’ For example, a book in Arabic is ‘Kitab,’ but ‘the book’ in Arabic is ‘al-Kitab.’ A kingdom in Arabic is ‘Mamlaka,’ but the kingdom is ‘al-Mamlaka.’
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A patronymic denominator
In the case of family names, ‘al-‘ not only precedes geographical origins but also indicates tribal affiliation or even the profession of one’s ancestor. For example, the name Ahmad al-Najjar means Ahmad the carpenter. Sometimes, this prefix is also attached to other features. Take Amal al-Atrash, the real name of the iconic Arab singer Asmahan, whose family name means ‘the deaf.’ This name originally derives from one of the early patriarchs of the clan who was himself deaf. Therefore, the ‘al-‘ is attached to most family names that denote geographic origins, professions, and tribal affiliations. There is a nuance, however, as many Arabic family names related to ancestry begin with ‘bin’ instead of ‘al-,’ with ‘bin’ literally meaning ‘son of.’ Mohammed bin Salman, for example, literally means Mohammed son of Salman.
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This feature is sometimes present in other dialects of Arabic that are slightly modified. For example, the interchangeable use of ‘El’ exists. While carrying the same meaning, ‘El’ and ‘al-‘ denote regional variances in pronunciation. ‘El’ prevails in Egypt and select North African nations, while ‘al-‘ is more commonly used in the Levant and Gulf regions. Additionally, ‘La’ serves as an alternative pronunciation for ‘al-‘ in the Maghreb region. For example, ‘al-Akhdar’ (the Green) would be pronounced in North Africa as ‘Lakhdar’ as a patronym.
The explanation becomes more nuanced and complicated due to another prefix in Arabic that sounds almost the same as ‘Al’ but is slightly different grammatically. ‘Aal,’ pronounced with an elongated ‘a’ sound, mirrors the more common ‘al-‘ in English transcription. However, ‘Aal’ with an elongated ‘a’ sound means ‘of the family of.’ For instance, the ‘Al Saud’ in Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is pronounced with an elongated ‘a’ sound and does not literally mean ‘the Saudi’ but rather ‘of the clan of Saud.’