Expressing the subject as a proper noun in Arabic

In our previous lesson on ilm ma’aani we discussed why you would express the subject of your sentence as a pronoun or ضمير. In today’s lesson we want to discuss why you would express it as a person’s name or عَلم. 

Why express the Subject in the form of a Proper Noun?

Remember, in a previous lesson we said that mentioning the subject was default, but then we talked about reasons why you would omit the subject and then reasons why you would want to especially mention it.

A few of the reasons for especially mentioning the subject will come up again. Notice the overlap in the diagram. 

Master list of reasons why one would mention the subject as a proper noun in Arabic

For example, we said one of the reasons for mentioning the subject, was to be explicit and avoid being misquoted later. 

In today’s lesson we are going to learn that one benefit of expressing the subject as a name is to again be explicit and avoid confusion. 

Remember from the last lesson we discussed why you would express the subject as a pronoun. We learned that it is to avoid having to say the proper noun over and over again. You can say for example: “Zaid came, then he took off his coat and he sat down”. Instead of having to say: “Zaid came. Then Zaid took off Zaid’s coat and Zaid sat down”. It makes life easier. 

Proper nouns or names, serve a similar propose. They prevent us having to mention everything about the subject and just refer to it using a short designation. E.g. instead of saying: “Muhammad and Aminah’s third son, the one with the green eyes, black hair came”, you can just give that person a designation; a name that represents him. You can simply say: “Zaid came”. 

The noun “Zaid”, represents this person. Whenever somebody says “Zaid”, that person comes to mind with all his qualities, attributes and his image etc. 

Relationship with Subject as a Pronoun

Think about the relationship between pronouns and proper nouns. You are introduced to a person once in your life. Then you can use their name to refer to them from then on, and you don’t have to mention all of their qualities. 

When you are starting a conversation, you can mention their name just once in the first sentence. Then you can use a pronoun to refer to them in all subsequent sentences. This is the primary function of proper nouns. 

How Proper Nouns relate to Pronouns in Arabic

Benefits of using a Proper Noun

But there are other benefits of using proper nouns as well: 

1. To Use the Name’s Meaning

The first benefit is to give honour, humiliation, or something of that nature to the subject based on the meaning of their name. 

For example, Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) uncle. His original name is Abdul Uzza, and he was given the nickname Abu Lahab meaning “father of flame”, on account of his fiery red face, which was a sign of beauty at that time. So, when the people of that time would refer to him, they would use this name to honour his looks because he was one of their leaders. Starting a conversation by using this name Abu Lahab has the primary purpose that we talked about in the previous slide, where you don’t have to mention all of his qualities. But it also has this added benefit of using the names meaning. 

2. To Use the Name Metonymically

To allude to something the name makes you think of. Be careful here, the previous benefit was based on what the name means. This benefit is based on what the name is associated to. We call this كناية or metonymy in English. I am going to use the same example of Abu Lahab for this one. When Islam came and the Prophet (peace be upon him) informed the sahabah (companions) about Jahannam and so on, لَهَب [Lahab] (meaning “flame”), all of a sudden became associated with the Fire of Jahannam. Abu Lahab now, metonymically refers to being a kaafir (disbeliver) and being destined for Jahannam. Whenever somebody thinks about or says Abu Lahab, what comes to your mind is kufr (disbelief) and Jahannam

Allah makes this very clear in Surah Masad, where Allah says: 

To use the name metonymically

The first use of the word لَهَب is in reference to the person and the second is in reference to the fire. Allah is using the similarity in the sound to link the meanings together. Indicating that he is destined for Hell. Now Abu Lahab is not quite the subject in this case in this ayah, but you get the point of using his name metonymically. 

3. To Use the Name Out of Love

To show how much you love the subject and how much pleasure you derive from the name. Because when two people are really in love, even each other’s name sounds lovely to them. Like when the poet says: 

Arabic poetry example for using the name out of love

He is saying that Leyla’s magnificence is so great that it alludes me whether she is human or actually a majestic gazelle. Because in Arabic poetry the beauty of women is often compared to gazelles, especially in terms of the eyes and the neck. 

Notice here he said Leyla twice, whereas he could have just said it once and used the pronoun in the second case. This unnecessary repetition of the subject’s name shows his obsession and love for the subject. 

4. To Derive Blessings

Another benefit is to derive blessings. For example, Allah says:  

Quranic example of using a proper noun to represent the subject of an Arabic sentence

Here the word الله is mentioned twice, whereas the second time a pronoun could have been used. Part of the benefit here is that it evokes increased blessings to mention Allah’s name. 

5. To Avoid Misinterpretation

To make sure that there can be no misinterpretation later on. For example, if Zaid hit Amr in school the teacher would ask another student: “Did you see Zaid hit Amr?”. The student might say: “Yes Miss, Zaid hit Amr”. You see this student didn’t need to say: “Zaid hit Amr”, he could have just said: “Yes, he hit Amr”, or he could have just answered: “Yes” and not mentioned the rest of the sentence, but he mentioned all parties by name to be firm and avoid any misinterpretation.