How to use the Hans Wehr Dictionary - January 1, 2005 by Arabic Language Lessons

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The Law says:
“The Hans Wehr dictionary arranges its entries alphabetically by root.”

Extract: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.