A word is considered definite when it refers to something specific in the world, and indefinite when it does not. For example, “a car” or “cars” do not refer to anything specific in the world and thus both examples are indefinite. Conversely, “my car” or “my cars” both refer to actual objects in the world and thus both examples are definite.
Some forms of definiteness, however, are stronger than others. Take, for example, a situation where two people are enquiring about the whereabouts of a third in a parking lot. Both conversers have cars parked in the lot. Now, if one says to the other, “Zaid is in the car,” Zaid may be in the car of either converser and thus the phrase “the car”, although definite, is slightly ambiguous. On the other hand, if one were to say, “Zaid is in my car,” then there is no ambiguity whatsoever. Hence, although both “the car” and “my car” are definite, the latter is more granular and specific than the former, and thus more definite (not only in this context, but more generally as well).
Notice that the concept of definiteness applies only to nouns, phrases, and sentences. This is because verbs and particles don’t have entities in the external world to begin with. Nouns, phrases, and sentences are the only forms of speech that correspond to objects/concepts in the real world.
In Arabic, words, phrases, and sentences are indefinite by default. In order to become definite, they must fall into one of the following categories. These categories are listed in the order of their granularity with the ones at the top being the weakest forms of definiteness.
1. a word made definite by means of the definite article ال (Al)
compare “a car” with “the car”
2. a sentence made definite by means of a relative pronoun
compare “the car was driven” with “the car that was driven”
3. demonstrative pronouns
4. proper nouns
5. personal pronouns
“he”, “I”, “you”
6. objects of vocation
7. a noun which is possessive to any of the above
compare “a car” with “Zaid’s car”
8. a special category
If a part of speech does not fall into one of these categories, it is indefinite.
The Definite Article
the definite article
a word made definite by the definite article
Al (ال) is a particle (حرف) in the Arabic language which is prefixed to nouns in order to render them definite. For example, the word “دراجة” (a bicycle) is indefinite by default but may be rendered definite by prefixing it with Al; “الدراجة” (the bicycle).
Although Al is a particle, it is typically treated as a prefix. Therefore, it is not considered when listing words in alphabetical order, it is not counted among the number of words in a phrase or sentence, and some dictionaries may not even reserve an entry for it.
Al is actually only one letter; the لام. Since this لام is without vowel, an eliding Hamza is required if speech is initiated with this particle. This is the only eliding Hamza in the language that is given a فتحة.
The letters of the Arabic alphabet are divided into two groups with respect to this particle; the sun letters and the moon letters. If Al is prefixed to a noun which starts with a moon letter, the لام is pronounced as expected (as in al-Qamar). And if it is prefixed to a noun which begins with a sun letter, the لام will geminate with that letter (as in ash-Shams).
ء ب ج ح خ ع غ ف ق ك م ه و ي
ت ث د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ل ن
In its capacity as the definite article, Al has two major functions. The first is to cause its noun to refer to something that has been mentioned. For example, “أرسلنا إلى فرعون رسولا. فعصى فرعون الرسول” (We sent to Pharaoh a messenger. But Pharaoh disobeyed the messenger.) In this statement, “the messenger” in the second sentence refers to the messenger that was spoken of in the first. And the second function of Al is to cause its noun to refer to something that, although not mentioned, is understood between the speaker and the listener. For example, when one says “المدينة” (the city), it is clear that the city being referred to is Medina of the Prophet (PBUH). Although nowhere in the speech has this been stated, yet it is agreed upon between the conversing parties.
Another function of Al is to refer to an entire class of things. For example, we may say that “the lion is a ferocious animal.” There is no particular lion to which we are referring; thus the purpose of the word “the” is to refer to the entire genus known as ‘lion’. Similarly, in Arabic, “إن الإنسان لفي خسر” (verily Man is in loss); here the ال on إنسان is not used to reference a particular human being, rather the entire class of humans. In this capacity, Al does not render the noun to which it is prefixed definite for obvious reasons; why?
Finally, another relatively common function of Al is to encompass all the individuals of the class which the noun to which it is prefixed represents. For example, “الحمد لله” (all praise is for Allah.) Here the Al is not referring to a particular praise, or a particular type of praise. Rather, it means all praise.