How to Use the Hans Wehr Arabic Dictionary

The Hans Wehr dictionary is a must have for people learning Arabic, but it is not organized in the same way an English dictionary is which can be confusing at first glance. For that reason I was months into learning Arabic before I bothered to figure out how to look up words. I don't recommend that. It's important to be able to look up words for yourself without having to ask the teacher and depend on their definition which (in my case) wasn't always correct.

In the Hans Wehr you can't go to the letter أ (alif) and find an alphabetical list of all the words that start with أ (alif). The dictionary is divided up into 3 letter verb roots, so if you go to the أ (alif) section you will find all the roots that begin with أ (alif). If you want to look up a word that is not just 3 letters then you have to be able to extract what the 3 letter root is. For words that are only 3 letters like رفع (to raise) then it's simple, you just search for them as they are, but for words that are longer than just 3 letters you have to know how to find the root of the word. For example, if you want to look up the word إستعجب (to be astonished) then you would have to know that the root is عجب and start looking under ع ('ain). If you tried to look up the word under أ (alif) you wouldn't find it, even though it starts with an أ (alif). Looking at the word إستعجب you might wonder, "How do I know which letters make up the 3 letter root?". Well it isn't hard to do with a little practice. The word إستعجب is measure X (ten). You can tell because it starts with إست. All measure X verbs will start with إست. Therefore, you immediately know that the إست is not part of the root. You're left with عجب which is the root.

So, once you know the root of the word you are trying to look up you flip to that root and you'll notice that there will be a transliteration of the root, for عجب it says 'ajiba. After that is goes into giving definitions. It has a few definitions, the roman numeral II, a few more definitions, the roman numeral IV, more definitions, the roman numeral V, definitions, and then finally it says X = V. This may look confusing, but it isn't with a little explanation. The definitions immediately after the root are for measure I. If you see the verb written as عجب then those are the definitions you are looking for. In this case it has written (to wonder, to marvel, be astonished, be amazed) and then it says the words that are commonly used with this word, من and ل, meaning that you would say عجب من or عجب ل basically meaning "amazed at". The roman numeral II signifies that the next definitions refer to the measure II verbs. If you see the very with a shadda عجّب then these are the definitions you want. The shadda on the second letter in a 3 letter root means that the word is in the measure II form. Then you have measure IV which is اعجب. The ا (alif) in front of the root signifies measure IV. Then there is measure V which is تعجّب. There is a ت at the beginning and a shadda over the ج. Then at the very end it says X = V. This means that the measure 10 and measure 5 have the same definitions. So, to recap, to find إستعجب we would look up عجب and go to the X. We'd see X = V and then look at the definitions of measure 5 and we'd know what the word meant.

All of the verb definitions are written right after the root. If the word you're looking up is a noun then it will be after the verb definitions. Sometimes you will have a word that has no root. In this case it will be listed alphabetically and you can look them up just like you would a word in an English dictionary. This includes any cognates such as country names or any word from another language. There is more to the Hans Wehr than just what is written here, but knowing this much will enable you to look up words and not be totally lost with the Hans Wehr dictionary.


Soda-Jerk said...


1. As our hosts says, the Hans Wehr dictionary is essential for any serious English speaking student of Arabic for the reasons he has given.

2. Hans Wehr, of course, was German and the original "Hans Wehr" was an Arabic-German dictionary subsequently edited into an Arabic-English dictionary.

3. The latest edition (after 1995) is available only in German. I suppose eventually this edition will appear in English.

4. ---> English speaking students of Arabic should be aware (for no particular reason, actually, other than interest), that a NATIVE speaker of Arabic would find the Hans Wehr dictionary of little use since MSA is not taught to native speakers in the same way it is taught to foreign speakers.

For example, native teachers do not teach the Arabic verb to native speakers in the same way "we" are taught.

Most native speakers of Arabic will have no idea what you mean by the "trilateral consonantal verb system" which we are all familiar with. Native speakers do not classify their language as we do.

Just try it (I have). Ask a native speaker what the "root" of, the word MEKNESA (broom) is, for example. No one will really understand what you're talking about.

4. For Egyptian dialect students, the best (and frankly, the only) dictionary around is A DICTIONARY OF EGYPTIAN ARABIC.

But it has several drawbacks. For one, it's outrageously expensive
($250 at Amazon last I looked).

(I picked it up in Bahrain a couple of years ago for 1 Bahraini Dinar which = about $2.50 (TWO US DOLLARS and FIFTY CENTS)!

But more importantly, I have found it nearly useless for LEARNING TO SPEAK colloquial Egyptian.

It is a great source book but the reality is that most of the examples it gives are items you will hardly ever run into in your everyday life.

In other words, if you're a SCHOLAR of Egyptian and are attempting some kind of ACADEMIC research on the subject, it would be essential.

If all you're interested in doing is just learning to converse in Egyptian, it is nearly useless.

The sad fact remains that there simply is no substitute to really learn any language other than to actually spend a year or two (as a young person) living in a country where the language is spoken.

Soda-Jerk said...


5. Finally, also vis a vis Egyptian Arabic: Probably the most useful language book to learn to speak this dialect I have found is called ARABIC IN A NUTSHELL.

I don't know if it is available anymore (at least in the form and edition I have). But what is interesting about this tome is:

It shows each phrase and conversation in FOUR (!!) scripts:

1. A phonetic script which tries to imitate correct colloquial pronunciation.

2. An Arabic SCRIPT (!!) rendition of the above. Not MSA, but the actual colloquial shown in Arabic letters (extremely unusual anywhere).

3. A WORD FOR WORD English translation of the Egyptian phrase(essential to see how Egyptian actually works...also extremely rare).

4. A translation of the Egyptian phrase into normal, everyday English.

It must have been a lot of work to put all this together.

Which is why it's probably no longer published. But.... I think you can get a USED copy at Amazon.

[In my opinion, EVERY language that is taught to foreigners should have this breakdown so that the student can actually see how the new language works]. [I could pick up Greek and Russian in a minute if similar items were available in these languages.]


the fact remains that despite all the touting (that means "making a lot of noise")about the "importance" of Arabic blah blah blah that has been made in the West and especially in the USA the last decade or so, it is a sad fact to realize that materials for students of Arabic remain pathetically piecemeal.....few and far between.

Even the more modern stuff, once you get into it, you realize that a lot of the "material" they present is simply photo-copied from Arabic newspapers with tiny fonts and unsatisfactory explanations etc. I'm especially thinking of the Georgetown U material that is available nowadays and taught in many universities in the US.

Frankly, I don't see it as any substantial improvement over the Michgan stuff that originally came out..oh...almost 40 years ago, I guess.

Compared to what's available in other modern languages...Spanish, French, German (even Latin) etc., with their graded readers, clear examples, great visuals, tapes and so on, Arabic is a poor distant relation. (And prospective students should be aware of this).

In other words, neither the public nor the private powers that be are REALLY serious about this subject. They simply don't put their money where there mouths are.

I may be exaggerating here somewhat....I understand the DLI in Monterey has a cracker-jack Arabic program (I don't know anything about it nor have I met anyone who is its product), but other than that, I believe most of my comments are spot on.

And so, Arabic remains a nearly inaccessible language. All this ties in with my comments here under ARABIC JOBS if you're interested in this angle of leraning Arabic.

The Arabic Student said...

It is very true that the materials out there for learning anything more than intermediate Arabic are few. For MSA there are more available, but for the dialects there's so little.

That's why I transcribe clips of real spoken Arabic that is used in every day life. I know how much something like that would have helped me when I was first beginning to look at the dialects (and would still help me get more advanced), but all the resources I saw for anything above beginner level were for MSA.

Soda, thanks very much for sharing your experience! I have asked teachers what the roots of certain words are and they really have to think about it since they just picked up the language as children and didn't learn it thought analysis like foreign adults do. The same thing goes with the measures. Unless the person is a teacher they're going to have no idea what the measures even are.

Anonymous said...

Up to now I have only seen dictionnaries organized the same way than the Hans Wehr ... Even the arabic-arabic ones are organized this way. The only exception I came across was a pocket dictionnary published in Lebanon which was organized the same way as our western languages, and the famous "lisan al'arab" for old arabic words and old texts which has yet another way of listing words.
I'd recommend teaching any beginner in arabic how to use a dictionnary this way ( the Hans Wehr one ), otherwise he'll be lost.

Matthew said...

I first picked up the Hans Wehr dictionary when I started learning Arabic, but found it completely unusable as a beginner. It's a solid, fairly comprehensive dictionary, except that it is dated as doesn't have modern terminology. It's still good for more advanced students, but daunting for beginners and even intermediate-level learners.

Eventually I decided to bridge this gap by creating my own dictionary (The Lingualism Arabic Learner's Dictionary), which is much more learner-friendly. It's still arranged by root, but the organization and layout is much clearer than Wehr. There's an index to help students find the roots of words with weak radicals (waw, yaa, and also hamza) and a table on the back cover to help locate the correct page quickly. It's a good size dictionary, although not as comprehensive as Wehr, but I really think it's what has been needed all along for beginner and intermediate learners. It's been a labor of love that I hope helps many (and so it's reasonably priced and available in paperback and as an ebook and free online at

I also recently put out a set of books "Arabic Voices" ( of native speakers' audio essays with transcriptions and translations to offer higher-level listening and reading materials in MSA and dialects, offering a clearer picture on how Arabic is actually used. I'm really trying to get some good quality material out there for Arabic, especially at the intermediate level.