Home Next

The Nijmegen Arabic/Dutch Dictionary Project

1.1 Dictionaries, Lexicography and Arabic Dictionaries in particular

- Some remarks about dictionaries in general

- Arabic Lexicography and Arabic dictionaries

Some remarks about dictionaries in general

Dr. Ali El Kasimi in his book 'Linguistics and Bilingual Dictionaries' mentions various types of dictionaries (without being exhaustive). "There are many kinds of dictionaries such as glossary, concordance, vocabulary, word book, index, gazetteer, verborum, thesaurus, encyclopedic dictionary, linguistic atlas to name a few."

I would like to add the following types: learners' dictionaries, frequency lists, specialized dictionaries (dentistry, military, law etc.). Most of these specialized dictionaries are vocabulary lists (i.e. without grammatical information or illustrative examples) or they are like 'encyclopedic works' containing explanations about the terms and concepts.

One of the main contributions of Al-Kasimi's work to lexicography is a typology of dictionaries, which reflects a very practical view on the art of dictionary making, which is mainly based "on the purpose or purposes the lexicographer intends to fulfill". Al-Kasimi also quotes Read: "a good editor [of a dictionary] must shape his work towards particular goals, depending upon the set of users that he has in mind". This new typology resulted in (among others) the following two contrasts as part of the typology:

- dictionaries for the speakers of the source language vs. dictionaries for the speakers of the target language.

- dictionaries for production vs. dictionaries for comprehension.

For maximal understanding, and in order to illustrate choices we have made for our dictionaries, I will elaborate on these contrasts.

A dictionary may be aimed at native speakers of the source language; for instance a Dutch-Arabic dictionary for speakers of Dutch. It is then an instrument to produce texts in Arabic, the target language. So it is a dictionary for production, or so-called active dictionary. It should contain information that enables the user to write or speak grammatically and stylistically correct in the foreign language.

But a Dutch-Arabic dictionary may also be aimed at 'learners' of the source language (for instance, a Dutch-Arabic dictionary for Arabs). They use the dictionary to comprehend Dutch texts; it is then a dictionary for comprehension, or so-called passive dictionary. In this case it should contain information that enables the user to read and understand texts spoken or written in the foreign language.

As argued elsewhere, because of market limitations in the Netherlands, it was decided that both volumes of the dictionary had to combine both functions in one volume.

So compilers of bilingual dictionaries need to take into account a clearly defined target group in order to take the right decisions about the organizational structure of their work.

A valuable set of criteria has been defined by James B. McMillan in a review of an English dictionary. These offer an interesting instrument to evaluate dictionaries according to the needs of the users of a dictionary. Even though they seem to be developed to evaluate monolingual dictionaries, a reliable evaluation of bilingual dictionaries is also possible by using a number of these criteria. The general criteria are: quantity of information, quality of information, effectiveness of presentation.

It goes without saying that information not only contains the entries of the dictionary but, even more important, all additional information like usage of the entry word or its equivalents, grammatical characteristics, illustrative examples etc.

After a slight adjustment in order to apply these criteria to bilingual dictionaries the following criteria can be listed:

- quantity of information: number of entries, number of equivalents, number of new terms (when compared with other dictionaries), frequency of use of subject (or field) labels, synonyms/anthonyms and pronunciations.

- quality of information: accuracy, completeness, clearness, simplicity, modernity

- effectiveness of presentation: comparison of the systems of alphabetization, the order in which the equivalents were listed, pronunciation systems, typography.

Without going into details concerning individual dictionaries it can be stated that many Arabic dictionaries would turn out to be poorly equiped to perform their function, when these criteria would be applied to them.

Arabic Lexicography and Arabic dictionaries

Arabic lexicography covers an immense terrain. Not only is the Arabic language extremely rich of vocabulary, but also is the variety of dialects enormous. The number of Arabic dialect dictionaries is probably larger than the dictionaries of Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. In this study I will mainly concentrate on dictionaries of the standard language. Only in the section about earlier published dictionaries of Arabic in the Netherlands have I added two examples of Moroccan Arabic dictionaries (Otten and de Waard) and a Rif-Berber dictionary (de Waard).

Haywood in his book 'Arabic Lexicography' mainly concentrates on a historical description of Arabic lexicography. His following observation is interesting. "The lexicographers helped to keep the written language static, and to aid the understanding of it, as the spoken dialects diverged more and more from it. So strong were religious sanctions on this point, and so well did the lexicographers do their work, that these spoken dialects were not able to develop into independent languages, as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French were able to develop out of Latin.

He also mentions the very early stage, in comparison to Europe, when voluminous dictionaries were being compiled in the Middle East. Haywood concludes by stating that it was not only Arabs who contributed to this, since also Persians and other nationals from the early Islamic empire played a considerable role. He finishes his book with the following conclusion:

They ["the Arabs"] were not, by any means, the first people to compile dictionaries of merit: but al-Khall may well have been the first man to attempt to register the complete vocabulary content of any language... But this is only one illustration of the fact that the "Arabs" had the right attitude and the right temperament for lexicography.

Al-Kasimi explicitly mentions Arabic lexicography for the early and extensive use of illustrative examples. "The early Arab lexicographers provided quotations from prose and poetry as evidence that the word under discussion was found in the Arabic language, not to illustrate its meaning".

So on this aspect the old dictionaries differ from the modern dictionaries, since illustration of meaning is an important function of illustrative examples, and the evidence function is completely absent in modern dictionaries. Another function of examples, at least as important as illustrating the meaning, is the demonstration of the usage of a word. This function is not mentioned by Al-Kasimi.

In literature I encountered some remarks specifically concerning the lack of monolingual Arabic dictionaries. Zughoul suggests the production of a reliable monolingual arabic dictionary as a factor that could contribute to the solution of problems resulting from diglossia. He states that in Arabic there is no such authoritative monolingual dictionary as Webster's in English (anthropoligcal linguistics vol 22).

Krahl, in reviewing Schregle's Arabic-German dictionary claims that Schregle could not rely on a modern monolingual Arabic dictionary during his lexicographic work. In his conclusion he maintains that bilingual Arabic lexicography is at present in a better state than monolingual Arabic lexicography (OLZ 83 (1988)2).

Kropfitsch, in reviewing the Coriente Arabic-Spanish and Spanish-Arabic dictionaries in ZAL (Zeitschrift fr arabische Linguistiek/Jorunal of Arabic Linguistics 6(1988)), agrees with Krahl's first remark, since also Kropfitsch notes that a recent and sound Arabic monolingual dictionary would facilitate the production of bilingual dictionaries.

In compiling the Nijmegen dictionaries we have profited from the existence of the monolingual Larouse ALECSO Basic Dictionary, which has been very useful for us. As mentioned elsewhere, this dictionary was compiled for non-arabophone users.

More in general Kropfitsch starts his review with a description of the exceptionally difficult position the Arabic lexicographer finds himself in. He mentions the following main decisions to be taken before any lexicographic work can be started: How and where can a deviding-line be drawn between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. In what extent should colloquial language be included? What arrangement of entries should be chosen, according to root or alphabetical? To what extent should professional language be incorporated?

We also had to take these decisions, as mentioned by Kropftisch, since they are indeed essential for any Arabic dictionary. As described elsewhere we had taken the following decisions when drafting the proposal that was presented to the principal the CLVV.

Our dictionaries would


almost exclusively contain Standard Arabic, and no colloquial Arabic


be arranged by root


contain general vocabulary, and only the generally known part of a number of specific domains

In literature one very rarely reads general remarks about Arabic dictionaries. The most complete, but somewhat outdated enumeration of Arabic dictionaries is beyond doubt Wagdy Rizk Ghali's bibliography. However, Dr. Ghali did not intend to evaluate any of the dictionaries mentioned in his book. In his introduction he declares that the bibliography is meant to be a descriptive one and not a critical (Ghali, Wagdy Rizk: Arabic Dictionaries. An Annotated comprehensive bibliography. Cairo 1971). Supplement in: MIDEO 12 (1974).

Another conclusion regards the functional aspects of Arabic dictionaries, i.e. the practical use by the users. It is our conclusion that many improvements would be possible in this respect to almost any dictionary containing Arabic.

reactions to: j.hoogland@let.kun.nl
last updated 26/10/2003 15:16 +0100
Home Next