Words like "algebra", "alchemy" and "alcohol" were introduced to English via Arabic. The "al-" prefix is the Arabic definite article. Why was the definite article retained when the words were incorporated into English?

BTW: I am aware that Arabic was not the origin of some of these words but it did add the "al-" prefix.

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    The al- is not always retained in English. Compare chemistry and alchemy which both come from Arabic al-kīmīā (الكيمياء), though the Arabic may have come from the Greek χημία or χημεία. – Henry Oct 22 '11 at 9:52
  • as an interesting note of similar phenomenon, quite a few English words entered Polish transferred as their plural form with singular polish meaning: "Eskimos" means an Eskimo, "Jankes" means a Yankee. Polish rules are used to pluralize them ("Jankesi"). – SF. Jul 9 '12 at 13:21

In Arabic, the definite article is always prefixed, never standing on its own as a word. Thus, the original Arabic word الجبر (transliterated al-jabr) became Latin algebra.

  • +1 I don't mean to question you, but do you have a source for this info? – Daniel Oct 21 '11 at 20:52
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    @drɱ65δ These two wikipedia articles go into fascinating detail on both points: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… The debatable part, that I didn't comment on in the answer, is whether the Latin borrowing should be considered a 'mistake'. – z7sg Ѫ Oct 21 '11 at 22:12
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    Perfectly true I would just add that the al- is sometimes assimilated in Spanish where it is in Arabic, so sulfur is 'azufre'. But in Catalan the al-is not used: 'sofre'. – user14109 Oct 22 '11 at 7:49
  • Thanks, to me it sounds like an error but I am not a linguist. – dave Oct 23 '11 at 11:03

All three words have Arabic origins, but they entered English via other languages which had already imported the definite article with them.


The Arabic indefinite article is not recognized as such by the foreign listener. To a foreign speaker the 'al-' sounds like it is part of the original word, it is not obvious that it is an article, and so is not something that is translated. The entire sound is considered a new word.

That is the general rule for borrowing from another language.

In the particular instances you give, for 'al-' from Arabic, they are almost entirely borrowed from an intermediate language (Spanish, French or Latin) which already made the foreign (Arabic) article part of the word.

  • See also orange, newt, adder and many more. – Toby Speight Nov 9 '16 at 15:56

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