I'm studying Arabic grammar from an old text book and it uses the term Spiritus Lenis. What does it mean?

To quote the book:

The object of it is merely to distinguish elif as the long vowel (ie lam-elif) from the elif as the spiritus lenis (elif with hamza)

  • 5
    I, for one, would be very interested in knowing more about the specific context in which your book is using the term spiritus lenis. Can you update your original question to provide more details? Perhaps quote the sentence that includes the term?
    – cnread
    May 6, 2017 at 20:41
  • 2
    @cnread I've quoted the specific passage of the book.
    – user761
    May 19, 2017 at 19:20
  • @Mikail: Thanks for updating the question. But what does 'it' in the quoted sentence refer to? hamza?
    – cnread
    May 19, 2017 at 19:29
  • @cnread it refers to lam-elif.
    – user761
    May 19, 2017 at 20:41

1 Answer 1


"Smooth breathing." When a word in ancient Greek began with a vowel, ancient scholars gave it one of two breathing marks. The spiritus lenis (Gk. ψιλὸν πνεῦμα) meant it was not aspirated, while the rough breathing (Lt. spiritus asper, Gk. δασὺ πνεῦμα) meant it should be aspirated.

  • I see what you're saying but, although I'm hardly an expert in Arabic, I don't believe it's quite correct, technically. My grammars are emphatic that no Arabic word begins with a vowel. A word such as the definite article ال that seems to us to begin with a vowel really begins with hamza, which is the initial consonant and, in formal writing, has a vowel sign (fatḥah, in the case of the definite article) to indicate the vowel sound. Initial alif in these cases merely carries the hamza (which is then followed by the vowel indicated by the vowel sign) and has no actual pronunciation of its own.
    – cnread
    May 6, 2017 at 19:22
  • (continued) (Of course, in writing, the definite article isn't typically written with either hamza or fatḥah, which makes it seem as though the word begins with alif.) Maybe change 'when a vowel begins a word' to 'when a vowel sound seems to begin a word' or the like?
    – cnread
    May 6, 2017 at 19:23
  • @cnread I'll just remove it. I do not know Arabic, so I'm not confident in making accurate changes. Maybe someone who actually knows Arabic can chime in.
    – cmw
    May 6, 2017 at 19:30
  • @cnread: My impression is that it depends on what you mean by "begins with a vowel". Whenever someone pronounces a vowel, obviously it has to start with some kind of phonetic transition from the previous sound. This phonetic transition may or may not be identified with a consonant phoneme depending on the language. For example, in standard German, all words that start with a vowel letter in writing are pronounced with a "glottal stop" or "hard attack", but this is usually not listed as a consonant of German.
    – Asteroides
    May 6, 2017 at 19:38
  • @cnread: I'm not an expert about Arabic, but my impression is that the definite article will be pronounced with a glottal stop after a pause, but not if it comes after another vowel in the same spoken phrase (which is why e.g. "عبد ال‎‎" is generally transcribed in English as "Abdul", not "Abdu'l"). Wikipedia talks about a distinction between "hamzat waṣl" and "hamzat qaṭ‘".
    – Asteroides
    May 6, 2017 at 19:40

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