What’s the Difference Between ابن and بن?


root: ب-ن / noun / plural: أَبْناء or بَنون / definition: son

Having finished my master’s, I took myself to the Tate Modern last week and wandered around the galleries and the exhibitions I’d booked to see. I was clearly inspired by the trip because I picked up my paintbrush again a few evenings ago and created a little something I had pictured in my mind.

You can see a snippet of the canvas I painted in the photo above—I’ve been (mentally) stalked by olive trees since analysing some olive tree imagery in relation to exile for my dissertation. I’ve even been eating more olives, actually.

But olive trees aren’t the topic for this post, and instead we’re looking at the word ابن which can also be seen written as بن (you’ll see these transliterated in English as ibn and bin).

اِبْن, which means “son”, has an interesting root—a two-letter (biliteral) root, in fact, as do some other nouns like اسم.

According to Drißner in his grammar book Arabic for Nerds 2, the root of ابن—which is ب-ن—is related to the Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew words for “son” (the Hebrew being בֵּן, ben).

So with only two root letters, the initial alif in ابن is an addition—and we only see it written in certain scenarios.

There’s a همزة الوصل on the alif which means that we pronounce it with a kasra unless the word before it ends in a short vowel, in which case the alif isn’t pronounced and the previous vowel joins straight to the ب. (Pronunciation examples below.)

So, when do we write the alif and when do we remove it?

We remove the alif of ابن when it occurs between two names, like this:

أحمد بن علي

Ahmad, son of Ali

But when there’s no name before ابن, we keep the alif. For example:

ابن حسن

the son of Hasan / Hasan’s son

(I’ve read of a few other scenarios where the alif is kept, like when a female name follows ابن—think عيسى ابن مريم—but the general rule above seems to be agreed upon by everyone.)

Note that it’s only the spelling that changes—the meaning is the same and so is the pronunciation! بن isn’t actually pronounced بِن / bin in Standard Arabic—we deal with it as though the alif with the همزة الوصل is still there:

  • أحمدُ بن علي is pronounced Ahmadu-bnu Ali
  • ابنُ حسن is pronounced ibnu Hasan
  • and if we have—for example—a verb before ابن, like if we write ذَهَبَ ابنُ حسن, it’d be pronounced dhahaba-bnu Hasan

And that wraps up this week’s post!

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.

!مع السلامة

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