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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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  • 1
    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, 2011 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, 2012 at 13:21
  • It's very common for words to be taken into other languages in something other than their base form or as different parts of speech or with other redundancy. You hear "the hoi polloi" a lot from Greek (where hoi=the). Compare French words like "shampooing" (what English speakers call "shampoo"). There's lots of words from Latin in English that mangle the language despite a greater knowledge of Latin than Arabic, e.g. "agenda" is a Latin plural, but still we have agendas. There's a long list of things which translate as Hill Hill Hill, etc, etc.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 19 at 9:38

4 Answers 4

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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.

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  • +1 I don't mean to question you, but do you have a source for this info?
    – Daniel
    Oct 21, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 at 7:49
  • Thanks, to me it sounds like an error but I am not a linguist.
    – dave
    Oct 23, 2011 at 11:03
  • This answer needs a supplement to explain the meaning of the arabic 'al-jabr'. The Wiley online dictionary offers 'to reduce a fracture' relating to bone setting. The 9th century book 'Ilm al-jabr wa l-muqābala, is translated as 'the science of restoring and balancing' by the Persian mathematical writer, al-Kwarizmi. It is important to be aware of the contribution of the Persian world, which may also have given much more than we know to the Greek world. The first Greek cosmologists had contact Persian thinkers ('magi'.) But little is left of what these Persians thought.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 19 at 23:07
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All three words have Arabic origins, but they entered English via other languages which had already imported the definite article with them.

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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.

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  • See also orange, newt, adder and many more. Nov 9, 2016 at 15:56
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The name came from a book in arabic called "hisab aljaber wa almukabala" the word al-jaber means the balance. That book gave the idea of algebra. alchemy also came from arabic. algorithm was derived from the name of the person who wrote that book as well.

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