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The Arabic word Allāh "God" is notable for a few different features. For one, it contains the sound [ɫ] not found in any other Arabic word; it's also an irregular contraction of the article al- and the noun ilāh "deity" (the expected form would be al-'ilāh, and this is indeed what's used for "the deity" in general).

Do we know when, or possibly even why, this change happened? Normally I associate brand-new unique phones with foreign borrowings (like Swahili having [ð] only in Arabic-derived words, or English using [x] only in loans), but Allāh seems to have a pure Arabic etymology. And I don't know any other words that have contracted with their article in this way.


P.S. The article does regularly assimilate before coronal consonants: al-šams "the sun" > aš-šams. That's not the phenomenon I'm interested in here: ilah doesn't start with a coronal consonant, so the assimilation doesn't happen. But it might be related if e.g. the assimilation used to happen before non-coronals too, making Allāh an archaicism.


EDIT: This question is similar, but doesn't explain the contraction. One of the answers implies that the unique pronunciation is to avoid confusion with the name of the deity Allāt, for example, but also says that the contraction is to glorify the name of God—if Allāt is also contracted, does that mean this contraction happens in all divine names? The line "almost all Arabian tribes were not monotheistic but they knew that 'Allah' is 'The authentic God'" seems to contradict that.

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    @Wilson This question also asks about the contraction of al-'ilāh to Allāh – b a Apr 30 at 9:14
  • @ba That's right. I think that Jihed Gasmi's answer explains that, though I can't say for sure. – Wilson Apr 30 at 9:54
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    @Wilson Unfortunately I don't think Gasmi's answer is accurate on that front. It says the contraction is to honor the name of the One True God, but also that the name of the unrelated deity Allāt shows the same contraction—if the real answer is "divine names contract" that would make a great answer, but nothing in that other question's answers states it specifically. – Draconis Apr 30 at 18:30
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In Arabic the behaviour of al is distinct from behaviour of other particles and distinctly unlike that of definite articles in romance languages. It is not viewed as a word unto itself and only occurs as a prefix to a noun. As such Allāh is best viewed not as a contraction but as an inflected form of ilāh indicating definiteness. With this in mind the question at hand is not so much how this is exceptional from other instances of al but a more straight forward question of phonetic change from alilah to allah. This appears to be a relatively standard case of elision, eroding the pronunciation of the i over time with the Encyclopedia of Islam attributing the change to frequency of use.

As a further point of clarification: technically speaking al does not assimilate with word-initial sun consonants, it geminates with them - meaning the lām is changed to repeat the sound of the consonant in usage, but not in writing. This is distinct from assimilation as in assimilation the al would merely be pronounced similarly to the consonant rather than be replaced - which is not the case here. Additionally note that 'moon letters' have never been the subject of gemination with al.

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    This is good information, but if I understand right, Allāh and al-'ilāh currently coexist with different meanings. I'm wondering how they ended up splitting, with Allāh contracting and changing the sound of its lām, and al-'ilāh not. – Draconis Apr 30 at 19:48
  • So a few things here, first of all this really can't be a case of contraction because as I mention in my answer al is more a marker of case than a word to be contracted with. Which means it's a question of phonetic change and by extension elision. Through repeated use al-ilāh likely came to be pronounced Allah, but that doesn't mean Arabic users forgot the other inflectional uses of al. Think of it like words and rules, they have Allah to refer to a specific god which blocks the standard rules that would form a regular inflected form al-ilāh. – drprufrock Apr 30 at 20:04
  • "distinctly unlike that of definite articles in romance languages. It is not viewed as a word unto itself and only occurs as a prefix to a noun." This is too far a generalization - in Eastern Romance languages (such as Romanian), the definite article is also a cliticized suffix, not an independent word. – Mark Beadles Apr 30 at 20:57
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    Also - call it a contraction, an assimilation, an inflection, or whatever, I believe the point of the question is: When (historically) did the form Allah enter into use? – Mark Beadles Apr 30 at 20:59
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    @drprufrock "Somewhere before 570CE" would be a valid answer, though a narrower timeframe would always be better. – Draconis May 1 at 2:22

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