How to Use (and Love) the Hans Wehr Dictionary


root: ق-م-س / noun / plural: قَواميس / definition: dictionary

If I had started this blog for the purpose of sharing only a single post, it would be this one.

You would only have to be studying Arabic for a short while before you’d hear the name “Hans Wehr” flying at you from all angles, and perhaps you’d wonder whether Professor Wehr is an elusive lecturer you have so far failed to bump into in the university corridors.

But elusive he is not. Far from it, in fact, because you’ll find a Hans Wehr on pretty much every Arabic student’s shelf and, more recently, on their phone too.

Legendary tales aside, to understand the obsession with The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic among Arabic aficionados, you’re going to have to start using it.

Because not only is Hans Wehr a dictionary in its simplest sense (an arguably insipid collection of definitions), rather—in my opinion—it’s one of the best learning tools for the Arabic student.

And some of the reasons behind that lie in the basics of its format.

For example, all entries are organised according to their root letters (e.g. the verb تفاعَلَ/”to interact” is found under ف-ع-ل)*.

One benefit of the lexical items being grouped according to their roots, and having to work out the root letters of each word you want to find, is that you’ll naturally form associations between words of the same root.

With your brain having formed a connection between a known word from the root and a new one, remembering the definition of the latter will be much easier.

Not only that, but before even looking up a word, you can formulate a rough idea of its meaning based on: (a) your semantic knowledge of other derivatives of the root (if you know any) and (b) the form of the unknown word.

And that brings us to another feature; Hans Wehr organises verbs under the roots according to their forms which are—in most cases—indicated solely by Roman numerals.

So, the definition of the verb تفاعَلَ will be next to the Roman numeral VI (i.e. form 6) under the root:

If you’re not confident with the verb patterns or numbers yet, just keep a table of the verb forms at hand when you’re looking something up (which, incidentally, is how I actually learnt the forms—A* for efficiency).

Most of the verb forms have regular past (perfect) and present (imperfect) forms and regular verbal nouns, hence the absence of their explicit mention next to the numerals.

The vowelling of form I verbs and their verbal nouns, however, are variable.

So, Hans Wehr gives you the information for form I verbs (which are displayed directly after the root letters) as follows:

The first part, which I’ve underlined in red, fa’ala, is the transliteration of the past tense. The following vowel underlined in yellow, a, represents the vowel on the second root letter (which, here, is the ع) in the present tense**. And in the brackets, the purple part, is the transliteration of the verbal noun, المصدر.

In short, for form I of the root فعل, the past tense verb is فَعَلَ, the present tense is يَفْعَل, and the verbal noun is either الفَعْل or الفِعْل.

(On a side note: it isn’t too uncommon to get more than one verbal noun for form I, as is the case in the example above. You’re also likely to come across other form I verbs with more than one option for the vowelling of the past and present tenses too.)

With the various definitions of the verbs, you’ll find the accompanying prepositions (if relevant) and, on occasion, some example phrases in which the verb is used.

Below all the verb definitions is where you’ll find the other derivatives of the root, including some (or all) of the verbal nouns. (But note that the active and passive participles—اسم فاعل واسم مفعول— will only be shown when their meaning is “not immediately obvious”, as Wehr states in his introduction.)

For each term, there’s often a multitude of definitions which can be bothersome at times when you’re trying to find the meaning that best fits the context (or, if you’re like me, what’s truly bothersome is the insistent temptation to note all of them down). However, it’s really worthwhile and economical to memorise a few definitions of those comprehensive words as you’ll be able to get more use out of a single Arabic term.

And by looking up previously-studied words in the Hans Wehr dictionary, you can boost the usefulness of the linguistic material you’ve already acquired.

What’s advantageous about the Hans Wehr is that it’s not only available as a physical book, but you can also use the app or this website (which certainly makes searching a lot quicker… and your phone is clearly much lighter to carry around than the 1301-page hardback copy).

Plus, with the app and website, you can either search for a root with Arabic letters or the corresponding English ones***—helpful if you don’t have some sort of Arabic keyboard.

Edit: take a look at this post for a list of the abbreviations in the Hans Wehr!

So, without detailing all of the intricacies, that pretty much sums up what you need to know to use the Hans Wehr dictionary. And the benefits will undoubtedly come to light the more you use it and familiarise yourself with it.

At the beginning, I mentioned that this post is the one I most wished to share.

And that’s simply because I can say that—from personal experience—knowing how to use the Hans Wehr dictionary can be a complete game-changer when it comes to the way you study Arabic.

Even physically seeing vocabulary on the pages of the dictionary helps you to create a visual reference for the terms that you have learnt which, in my own experience, has partially changed the way I think about and remember vocabulary.

Not only will using Hans Wehr improve your understanding of the forms and roots, but it’ll also help you to appreciate the depth of the Arabic language that is evident even (and, perhaps, especially) amongst the myriad of varied definitions.

After that, the only difficult part will be restraining yourself from sneaking glimpses at interesting roots on the other half of the page when you only intended to look up a single word. Because, before you know it, you’ll be reading your Hans Wehr like a story book!

I hope this was helpful and motivational in some way, too. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments. And do make sure to share this with any Arabic learners you know!

See you soon! إلى اللِقاء

* Some words—particularly foreign words that are independent of any Arabic root—will be listed alone, alphabetically.

** So, a represents فتحة (undefined), i represents كسرة (undefined), and u represents ضمّة (undefined).

*** The key for the corresponding English letters can be found by clicking “Roman Arabic Letters” in the sidebar of the app or “About” near the top of the web page.

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25 thoughts on “How to Use (and Love) the Hans Wehr Dictionary

  1. This was extremely beneficial! I appreciate the tip you gave for looking up the words you already know in hans wehr for the purpose of learning similar words and meanings related to it.

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