A: How to us the “Hans Wehr” Dictionary

In Part II Chapter 4, I discussed the use of a dictionary in a manner designed to increase reading effectiveness. I discussed the necessity of not looking up every new word, of reading blocks of text before resorting to the dictionary in the first place, and of not writing down the meanings of words you have looked up. In this section I want to talk about the mechanics of using a dictionary – how to look up words and what to look for when doing so.

First of all, you need to know which Arabic-English dictionary to use. If you have had Arabic before, you probably know that the dictionary used by university students is A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic by Hans Wehr and edited by J. Milton Cowan. For all of the problems associated with this dictionary, it is by far the best general Arabic-English dictionary available. Forget the others (with the possible exception of one which I will discuss below).

The Hans Wehr dictionary (it is known as “the Hans Wehr dictionary” by students of Arabic) comes in two editions: the third edition and the fourth edition. The third edition came out in 1961 and is available primarily in paperback and is green in color. If you have had Arabic before and had to buy an Arabic dictionary, this is probably the edition which you have. This edition has been reprinted several times, including reprintings in the mid 1970’s, but no actual changes to the dictionary were made. Thus, if you are using the third edition you are using a dictionary that is over thirty years old. The third edition is also available in a green hard cover, but it is very expensive in the United States. If you buy the third edition, buy the paperback. It should cost under $20.00.

The fourth edition was issued in 1979. It is, at this point, available in hard cover (blue in color) and in an over-sized paper back edition (also blue in color). The cost of the hard cover in the United States is about $150.00. The paperback runs about $45.00. The fourth edition contains two hundred more pages with about 13,000 new entries and about 3,000 updates and corrections. While this sounds impressive, the fourth edition is not really all that much better than the third. Since the third edition paperback is less than $20.00 you should opt for it unless you have a few more bucks than I did when I was in school. Remember, too, that the fourth edition is itself well past the age of puberty. (See note 1 below)

Both editions of the Hans Wehr dictionary have the same structure and organization of contents. What I have to say below applies to both editions unless otherwise specified. I will use the term “Hans Wehr” to refer to both editions unless I say otherwise.

The Hans Wehr dictionary arranges its entries alphabetically by root. For example, مَكْتَب will be found under the root ك ت ب . So, the first thing you must do is memorize the Arabic alphabet. Here it is, going from right to left, in case you have not already done so.

أ ب ت ث ج ح خ د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ع غ ف ق ك ل م ن ه و ي

Note, first of all, that the hamza is not included here as a letter of the alphabet. The hamza is, of course, one of the radicals in a number of words. The alif, strictly speaking, is never a radical in a word. For the purposes of looking up a word by its root, the haniza is the first letter of the alphabet. For example, قَرَأَ is listed before قَرُبَ .

However, foreign words and other words not directly linked to an Arabic root, are listed in strict alphabetical order. See, for example, باريس (“Paris”) and كادر (“cadre”). For such words, the alif is the first letter of the alphabet.

Of course, you will find foreign words containing an alif, and Arabic roots containing a hamza, on the same page. When this occurs, the alifl s and the hamza’s are essentially equivalent and the Hans Wehr is not entirely consistent in giving priority to one or the other. (See note 2 below)

Do not be fooled by hollow verbs. Their medial alif is either a waaw or a yaa’. For example, سالَ (“to flow”) is under س ي ل and is not under س ا ل However, سَأَلَ (“to ask”), is one of the early entries under the س .

The alif maqsuura is also not a letter of the alphabet. As you should know by now (if you have read most of this book), it represents either a و or a ي . Thus you will have to look such a word up under both roots.

The taa’ marbuuta is also not a letter of the alphabet. It is not part of the root of any word.

Note also that the arrangement of the letters of the alphabet is done according to the shape of the letter. This will aid your memorization of the order.

How to look up a word

In order to use your Hans Wehr effectively, you must know two things in addition to the order of the Arabic alphabet. First you must know the root-pattern system of the language and secondly you must know how the words are arranged in Hans Wehr under each root. This book has taught you all you need to know about the root-pattern system of the language. But you still need to know how the words are arranged under each root. Additionally, there are some quirks regarding the dictionary of which you should be aware. I will mention them as we go along.

We will use the verb خَرَجَ as an example of how the Hans Wehr dictionary works. Let’s say you are reading a text and you come across the word خرج . You decide it is probably a Form I verb (but it could be, of course, a Form II verb) and you look for it in your dictionary. So get your dictionary and open it up to the root خ ر ج .

When you find it you will see the three letters of the root followed by the Form I verb transliterated, with the vowels, into English. Next to that you will find the letter “u” written. The u stands for the dhamma used as the stem vowel for the imperfect. Thus, for any Form I verb, the Hans Wehr dictionary will give you its voweling for the perfect by transcribing the whole verb and it will give you the imperfect stem vowel.

You will then find the verbal noun or nouns for the Form I along with the transcription(s) in parenthses (often the verbal nouns will be noted only in transcription). After that you will find the various meanings of the verb along with the prepositions that go with it.

Many roots exist in more than one form. Thus, as you go down the main entry you will come across Roman numerals indicating the forms in which the root exists and giving the meanings. However,the verb itself will not be written. In our example, the root خ ر ج is found in Forms II, IV, V,VI and X. You will find these Roman numerals in the column under the main entry along with the meanings for each form. But you will not see the words أخْرَجَ , خَرَّجَ etc., actually written. (One student of mine says she feels that omitting the Arabic words themselves is extremely mean-spirited.)

Immediately after the listing of the verb forms will be nouns and adjectives derived from or related to the Form I verb. You can see this under the current example (no adjectives are listed under this one). Usually this section ends with nouns of place, as is the case here with the word مَخْرَج .

Then the verbal nouns will be listed in numerical order starting with Form II. (This time, you’ll actually get the Arabic words, but you won’t see the Roman numerals.) You can see this easily here. In fact, under the entry we are using as an example, the dictionary gives the verbal noun for each of the derived forms in which the root exists. This will not always be the case. Occasionally, derived verbal nouns will not be listed as separate entries and you will have to derive the meaning of the verbal nouns from the meanings given under the form of the verb itself. That is, you will have to go back to the entry for the root and find the appropriate Roman numeral and derive the meaning of the verbal noun from the meanings given for the verb in that form.

After the verbal nouns, the dictionary will give you some of the active and then some of the passive participles in order from Forms I through X. Be careful here. Often, active and passive participles are deliberately not listed because their meanings can be derived from looking at the meanings given for the appropriate verb form. Wehr says this himself in the introduction to the dictionary – which you should also read.

You will notice that some entries contain a large number of definitions – خَرَجَ is a good example. Often, the most common meaning of the word will not be the first one given, nor among the first ones given. In fact, often the first meanings given are rarely used. For example, look up the verb دَرَسَ right now as if it were a new verb to you. None of the first six meanings of the verb indicates that it means “to study.” This kind of problem exists in the meanings of the derived forms of various verbs as well. Thus, you will have to use the context in which you have the word as an aid in deciding which meaning is the correct one. You will find this particular problem for a surprising number of verbs in all of the forms.Often the best meanings are near the middle of the list of the meanings given for any particular verb under a particular form. Just be careful.

This particular peculiarity of the Hans Wehr makes it all the more important that you read for context when you are reading Arabic texts. You may have to look up a number of words and choose from a variety of meanings. The more you know about the context, the more easily you will be able to select the correct meanings when you use the dictionary.

That, in essence, is how the dictionary works. The Hans Wehr third edition should be adequate for your needs for quite some time. But do not forget its limitations – especially the fact that it is very dated and many new items have entered the lexicon of Arabic over the past thirty years.

You may not be too thrilled about having to use a dictionary organized by root – however, most western Arabic dictionaries do so. The system has several advantages over a purely alphabetical arrangement. For one thing, it gives you the meanings of words from the same root whenever you look up a word. Thus you can get a good sense of the range of meanings one root can convey. Also, since Arabic texts are almost never vocalized, you cannot always be sure that you have the correct spelling in mind when you look up a word. The root arrangement allows you to look at several possibilities at the same time. Here is an example of what I mean.

.الجامعة تخرج عددا كبيرا من الطلاب المتفوقين كل سنة

Let us say that you need to look up the verb in the sentence above. You do not know from looking at it whether it is Form I, Form II, or Form IV. In an alphabetical dictionary, the Form IV would be under I so you would have to first look up the word under خ ر ج then خ رّ ج (which will be very close by), and then under a completely different listing  أ خ ر ج . However, the root arrangement allows you to see the meanings for all three possibilities on the same page. It can save you a lot of time.

Another advantage of the root system is that it takes less time to look up long words if you know the root. Since you usually only have to worry about three letters to find the main entry it, takes less time to get to the appropriate page than it would if you had to be concerned about every letter that actually appears in the word. For example, استخدام can be quickly looked up under خ د م followed by a glance at the Form X meanings if you use Wehr. But in an alphabetical dictionary you need to use each letter in the word to find its location. If you know the root-pattern system of Arabic, you will be able to find Arabic words in the Hans Wehr more quickly than you are able to look up English words using an English dictionary.

The major drawback to a dictionary based on the root system is that if you are not certain of the root, you may have to look up a word under two or more different roots. This is often a problem with hollow and defective verbs, and also with doubled verbs. If you have already worked through the first chapters of Part II, you should be familiar by now with the kinds of ambiguities that can arise. I will omit giving examples of this particular problem.

I indicated above that there is a dearth of decent Arabic-English dictionaries of a general nature available. (There are quite a few technical dictionaries in a number fields on the market. They are beyond the scope of this book.) The Hans Wehr is the best of the lot – despite its age. Recently a new dictionary has been published which you may wish to use as a supplement to the Hans Wehr if you are a serious Arabic student.

The dictionary is authored by Dr. Rohi Baalbaki and is called Al-Mawrid. Many Arabic students are familiar with a different dictionary by the same name which is an English-Arabic dictionary put together by a Munir Baalbaki, a relative of Rohi. I am not talking here about Munir Baalbaki’s dictionary-so do not confuse the two dictionaries merely because they have the same name and their authors are relatives with the same last name. How could you possibly do such a thing? I am talking here about Dr.Rohi Baalbaki’s Arabic-English dictionary called Al Mawrid. Its full name in Arabic is المورد قاموس عربيإنكليزي

The dictionary was first issued in 1988. Its strong point is that it is more up-to-date and thus contains many words not found in even the fourth edition of the Hans Wehr. (It is my impression that the Hans Wehr was a major source in the compiling of this dictionary.) Unfortunately, the dictionary is organized alphabetically and not by root. This is a major drawback and in and of itself makes the dictionary as a whole greatly inferior to the Hans Wehr with respect to the foreign student of Arabic. However, as a supplement to the Hans Wehr it is very suitable. In defense of Dr. Baalbaki, I must say that the dictionary was not designed for non-native speakers of the language. It may interest you to note that native speakers of Arabic are often unfamiliar with the root-pattern system of the language as it is taught in western universities. Unfortunately, many American students are also unfamiliar with the root-pattern system as well, even though it is taught to them.

Another strong point of the dictionary is its inclusion of expressions – many of them idiomatic – in which a word may be used. In this respect, the dictionary is superior to Hans Wehr. Dr. Baalbaki’s dictionary is available only in hard cover and it may be hard to obtain in the United States. It is published by Dar el-Ilm Lilmalayin in Beirut, Lebanon. P.O. Box 1085. Telex: 23166 LE.

Note 1 – A fifth edition of the dictionary has recently appeared. It is in hardcover and costs a mere $300.00.

Note 2 – For example, بار meaning “bar” is listed before بَأرَ meaning “to dig a well” and بابا “father,” is listed before بأبأ, which means “to say poppa.” But this precedence for the alif over the hamza usually occurs in words such as those above where the spellings are otherwise the same. For example, after , بَأرَ , Hans Wehr lists a number of foreign words beginning with با such as بارود, باريس and بازار.

4 responses to “A: How to us the “Hans Wehr” Dictionary”

  1. Menekshe Avatar

    I started crying while reading what you are saying about your teaching Arabic strategy. It is just wonderful! I’ve been desperately trying to speak to the teacher, principle and superintendent of my kids’ international school in KSA where we are working and living, with absolutely no result. There is no teaching concept whatsoever and being a linguist myself I started to teach myself Arabic to at least teach my kids a bit. Could you send me your email please, so I can discuss things with you further. Thank you so much!

    1. maalik Avatar

      the general format of learning a language is common sense.

      first you master the speaking, Reading and writing of the language’s script

      then you master the Comprehension of the Words

      Then you master the comprehension of Sentences.



  2. Karen Avatar

    Again, in regards to needed updates: The new Oxford Arabic Dictionary was released in 2013 and is far superior to Hans. It’s big and heavy, so not as portable, but the online version is amazing. Students can put in plurals or conjugated forms and still get to the right entry. It also has verb charts for every verb. It’s extremely useful, and much more up-to-date than Hans. The OAD online is not free, but many students will have access to it through their university library or, if not, it’s a pretty cheap subscription.

    1. Khairul Avatar

      It sound interesting. I had searched it but still don’t find the link. Can you share ?

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