a relative pronoun
a relative clause
Recall that nouns, phrases, and sentences are indefinite by default. There are certain groups of nouns, however, that are definite; these are personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, proper nouns, and the word “Allah”. But this is a very exclusive list.
So, even if a noun does not fall into one of these categories, it can still be rendered definite using certain mechanisms such as becoming the object of vocation or become مضاف to something that it definite. But, again, these mechanisms are very specific and one may wish to render a noun definite without resorting to one of these structures.
Therefore, Arabic facilitates a very generic form of definiteness which is the definite article, Al. Any noun prefixed with this article automatically becomes definite and one can then satisfy the conditions of the noun-adjective structure, for example. Notice that the definite article is not only used to render nouns definite, but phrases as well. This is because the definiteness of a phrase usually depends on the definiteness of some or all of its components. For example, the noun-adjective phrase is definite when both of its components are definite, the إضافة phrase is definite when the مضاف إليه is definite, and so on.
But what about sentences? They, too, are indefinite by default and they, too, require a very generic mechanism of being rendered definite. But we cannot prefix the definite article to an entire sentence and so we need some other mechanism. The solution is to use relative pronouns. Relative pronouns, then, act like the definite article for sentences and render them definite when, for example, they need to become an adjective for a definite noun.
A relative pronoun is one that introduces a relative clause – an entire sentence – in order to relate it to the larger sentence in which it is embedded. In English, these are words like “who”, “what”, “which”, “that”, and so forth. For example, “النجم طمس” (the star dimmed) is an entire sentence, but “النجم الذي طمس” (the star which dimmed) is a phrase in which the embedded sentence “dimmed” is related to “the star” through the medium of the relative pronoun “which”.
Relative Pronouns in Arabic
The following charts display the most common relative pronouns in the language along with their genders and pluralities. The singulars and plurals of Group 1 are indeclinable, as are the pronouns in Group 2, and the endings are fixed as displayed.
Group 1 (pronouns used for humans only)
اللذان / اللذين
اللاتي، اللواتي، اللائي
اللتان / اللتين
Masculine & Feminine
Singular, Dual & Plural
Relative pronouns are followed by an entire sentence known as the relative clause. This sentence contains a personal pronoun that refers back to the relative pronoun and is appropriate to the meaning in gender, plurality, and person. This is not the case in English. In English, we would say “the star that dimmed”, whereas in Arabic we would say “the star that it dimmed”, where “it” is a personal pronoun that refers to the relative pronoun “that” and is appropriate to the meaning in gender, plurality, and person.
the personal pronoun in a relative clause that refers back to the relative pronoun
A few examples follow. For each example, try to identify the عائد. It may sometimes be omitted – especially when it’s the object of a verb – but that does not happen in any of the following examples.
الجنة التي أورثتموها
اللذين آتيناهم الكتابَ
واللذان يأتيانها منكم
واللائي لم يئسن
نسائكم اللاتي دخلتم بهن
ما أنتم عليه
ما هو شفاء ورحمة للمؤمنين
من متّعناه متاع الحياة الدنيا
من يأتيه عذاب يخزيه
ومن جهر به
It is a skill to be able to translate relative pronouns and their clauses correctly. Usually, one needs to translate a combination of the عائد, its governing word, and the relative pronoun together before starting to translate the relative clause. This comes with practice and, although there are a few examples below, real command of this comes through studying Arabic in a classroom environment.
he whose speech regarding this worldly life will captivate you
من يُعجبك قولُه في الحياة الدنيا
he in whose heart is a disease
الذي في قلبه مرضٌ
he upon whom is the liability
الذي عليه الحقُ