In the new Amazon show The Wheel of Time, Zoë Robins plays Nynaeve al’Meara. Madeleine Madden plays Egwene al’Vere. And Josha Stradowski as Rand al’Thor.
Are you noticing a theme here? So are we. So what exactly does the “al” prefix mean on The Wheel of Time?
One fan of the Robert Jordan book series — the series on which the Amazon show is based — asked that very question in a forum post back in 2019. “Some families have it and some don’t, but it doesn’t seem to denote social standing,” that fan observed. “I mean Rand, Nyneave, Egwene, and their families all sport the ‘al,’ but they don’t seem to have a higher social standing than the Cauthons, the Aybaras, the Luhans, Cenn Bui, or any of the others. So, what does it mean?”
The prefix “al” has two meanings in the world of ‘The Wheel of Time.’
In that forum post, the inquisitive fan had a theory, writing, “Is it like the ‘O,’ ‘Mac,’ ‘Mc,’ or ‘Map’ found in Celtic cultures or the ‘ibn’ found in many Islamic states? Just curious.”
That fan was on to something. All of those prefixes are parts of patronymics from various cultures, or names derived from one’s father or ancestor. And the same goes for the prefix “al’” for some characters in The Wheel of Time. For others, however, the prefix is a marker of royalty…
The dual meanings has borderland characters mistaking Rand for royalty.
Robert explained the “al” prefix in Chapter 2 of The Great Hunt, the second book in his Wheel of Time series. In that chapter, Rand al’Thor tries to leave the borderland city of Fal Dara and is stopped by a stablehand named Tema, who has an annoying habit of referring to Rand as a lord. (“For the hundredth time, Tema, I am not a lord,” Rand says. Tema’s response? “As my Lord wishes.”)
So why is Tema confused? In the nearby kingdom of Malkier, Robert wrote, “the royal ‘al’” denotes the name of a king.
But for Rand, Robert added, “‘al’ was just a part of his name, though he had heard that once, long ago, before the Two Rivers was called the Two Rivers, it had meant ‘son of.’ Some of the servants in Fal Dara keep, though, had taken it to mean he was a king, too, or at least a prince. All of his argument to the contrary had only managed to demote him to lord. At least, he thought it had; he had never seen quite so much bowing and scraping, even with [Fal Dara commander] Lord Agelmar.”
In a different forum post, one Wheel of Time fan speculated that “ay” means “daughter of.”
“Over time, the prefixes seem to have been merged into the actual last names, and in the modern times, we just get last names like Al’Thor, Al’Seen, Aybarra, Ayellin, etc.,” that reader added. “Some last names don’t follow this convention—Cauthon and Conlin, among others—leading me to suspect their ancestors were immigrants.”