The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Fourth Edition)

Arabic, Books, Dictionaries

March 10, 2013

Author  Hans Wehr
Publisher  Spoken Language Services
Publication Date  1994
Price  $45.00
Skill Level  Intermediate, Advanced

The front cover of this Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic reads, “A Compact Version of the Internationally Recognized Fourth Edition,” but I can’t find a non-compact fourth edition. Confusing!

I have read effusive things about this dictionary online, things along the lines of its being a linguistic masterpiece, very complete, indispensable, etc. All I know is that at my level (total beginner), it was unusable, so I can’t begin to rate it, but I will comment on some aspects of it that made it too hard for me in my novice state.

To use the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, you have to be comfortable not only with Arabic script, but also with the root system. The dictionary lists words not alphabetically, but based around word roots, three-letter combinations of consonants that are associated with a particular general meaning.

For example, the combination of k-t-b relates to writing. By inserting additional letters before, between and after these three consonants, you end up with a variety of words relating to writing, such as “book,” “library,” “author,” etc. The dictionary displays thematically related words by root rather than splitting up the words and listing them alphabetically. I find this system basically impossible. If I spoke Arabic, that would work. Since I don’t, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to find things.

My understanding is that you would have to know the root, find the root in the dictionary, then read through a boatload of associated words to track down the word you want. When you are still slowly sounding out individual words letter by letter, this kind of sweep of a page is not really possible.

In addition, I find the Arabic font size used in this Hans Wehr Dictionary to be miniscule. Am I the only one who has this problem repeatedly, not just here but also in books designed specifically for Arabic-language study? I understand that if I had more skills, I could read the font in a smaller size. But even so, the size in this dictionary seems really small to me.


Finally, this dictionary offers help in only one direction, going from Arabic to English, and not the other way around. That is no good to me. I need the other direction much more at this stage.

In conclusion, though plenty of people on the web seem to be quite enamored of this book, it is not the one for you if you are a newcomer to the language. I have seen very basic dictionaries for other languages—total handholding kinds of books, things that scholars would probably shun—and that is what I wish I had had for Arabic.

If I return to Arabic, I might try Nicholas Awde and K. Smith’s Arabic-English/English-Arabic Practical Dictionary, which I know nothing about but which apparently alphabetizes according to the European system. There is also a tiny and very beginner-oriented Pocket Arabic Dictionary from Periplus for just $6.95; I haven’t seen that particular one, but it is part of an appealingly designed dictionary series Periplus offers for all major Asian languages.

Hans Wehr: A Comprehensive Arabic-English Dictionary
Hans Wehr: A Comprehensive Arabic-English Dictionary
Cool-Looking, But Hard for a Beginner Like Me to Use
Cool-Looking, But Hard for a Beginner Like Me to Use

Comments (1)

Jeremy • Posted on Tue, February 28, 2017 - 6:11 pm EST

Here a terrific video and an article about how to use Hans Wehr

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