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The Nijmegen Arabic/Dutch Dictionary Project

1.6.7 Neologisms in Dictionaries

When we were using the different dictionaries, and in particular during the stage of comparing the descriptions in various dictionaries, we noticed that some dictionaries present as translations newly coined words which, to my opinion should be considered neologisms. Neologisms have to become generally known to the public through their usage in a specific context.

However, when such neologisms are introduced in a bilingual dictionary as a translation equivalent for a foreign language concept there is no context since the foreign language word probably is unknown to the dictionary user. As a matter of fact the dictionary user will only run into such a neologism by looking up a foreign word in a FL-Arabic dictionary. When the user is confronted with a neologism without any further introduction, he will probably remain in confusion about the meaning of the FL word as well as the meaning of the Arabic neologism.

There are of course several options to the dictionary maker who prepares a FL-Arabic dictionary:
First of all the dictionary compiler may decide to translate foreign words for which no Arabic equivalent exists with a description, i.e. an explanation of its meaning.
The second option is to provide a neologism translation.
And obviously the third option would be to combine both previous options, i.e. providing a neologism and a description.

As already mentioned, some dictionaries chose the option of providing neologisms, with or without further explanation.

One example of this category of dictionaries is the Al Manhal French-Arabic dictionary.
In order to verify the policy of the compiler of this dictionary, I have consulted the introduction, which is written in Arabic.
On page 8 of the introduction the author mentions two methods of presenting new translations: by forming neologisms or by descriptions. The author prefers the first option, to create neologisms according to the rules of the Arabic Language Academies (top of page 9).

The author presents an example of a description and proposed to have additional explanation between brackets, whereas a translator using the description can confine himself to using the part of the description outside brackets. In his introduction the author mentions the French word "désinfecter" for which he provides the following translation: ( طهّر (من جراثيم المرض . This approach happens to correspond with the approach we have chosen in certain cases in the Nijmegen dictionaries.

The author also presents some cases in which, according to the author, the Arabic language has been enriched with new words. All these newly coined words are marked with an asterisk, so it is relatively easy to trace these neologisms.
The following examples are presented in the introduction:

conceptualiser مَفْهَم ( كوّن مفهوما انطلاقا من شيء)
constructivisme بنائية (نظرية جمالية ظهرت عام ...)
clitocybe قبعية (جنس من الفطور ذو قبعة، يؤكل عادة)
bureaucratie بيروقراطية، ديوانية (تسلط الدواوين الحكومية ونمطيتها الجامدة)







Especially the last example is interesting and amazing simultaneously. Together with the generally accepted and used term 'biruqratiya, this author presents a neologism in order to replace the loan word that is being widely used. This can in my opinion only be considered an attempt by the dictionary maker to involve himself in language policy.

I checked a number of pages of Al Manhal to get an impression of the number of neologisms marked with an asterisk. The following pages contain the indicated number of asterisk marked neologisms:

664 1
665 1
666 1
667 3
856 2
857 1
858 0
1026 1
1027 0
1028 0
1029 0







So 11 pages contain 10 neologisms, i.e. an average of a little less than 1 neologism per page of this dictionary.

The following table contains some examples of these neologisms:


خطيفة (صورة مأخوذة بسرعة خاطفة)


جزرية (حالة بلد مؤلف من جزيرة أو أكثر)   


تمامية (مذهب يحال الاحتفاظ بتمام النظام...)


قصدية (حالة ضميرية قصدية متعلقة بمستقبل قريب)


تفاعليّة (ظاهرة تكتل بين أفراد تتم بأن يكون تصرف كل واحد منهم مؤثرا في آخر)


تعاوضيّة (حالة أشياء ممكن استعمال أحدها عوضا عن آخر)


سبّاق (زورق سباق مستطيل وضيق)


مُجْلِسة (عاملة المسرح التي ترشد الحضور إلى أماكن جلوسهم)


مُفَتِّحة (آلة لفتح القطن أو الصوف بغية تنظيفهما)


سَرْديّة (جزء رئيسي من سمفونية)

















In all these cases the author provides a neologism (marked with an asterisk) and an explanation.

A second case is Al Mawrid English-Arabic (1996 edition)
In this dictionary there are (according to the compiler) neologisms as well. The compiler, Munir Ba'albaki, states he has done the best he could to arabize, translate, derive or compound terminology (par. 11). In this way he has coined several thousands of terms

This arabizing, translating, derivating and compounding is justified by the author when he states: "In any case this is just a modest effort by which I intended to prove the ability of the Arabic language to move forward and to comply with the demands of life in its different aspects. Furthermore, he has also added short explanations  to give the user an idea of the meaning of the word, maybe followed by a label indicating the subject field the term is associated with. The author argues this is an advantage of his dictionary in comparison with certain specialised technical dictionaries, in which the authors have not added any explanations to the terminology presented.

Also the ALECSO book  صناعة المعجم العربي لغير الناطقين بالعربية mentions in the recommendations the possibility to create neologisms. The recommendations of the second group concern the language variety the entries are taken from:"Modern Standard Arabic, local varieties of Standard Arabic, neologisms and arabized new words." However, a condition is introduced for the inclusion of neologisms (kalimat muwallada, mu'arraba, daxila): they have to be incorporated in daily language and educated persons should be using these words in actual practice (page 6, 6 lines from the bottom of the page).



One of the contributors to the just mentioned book also advocates the use of neologisms.
George Nuama Sa'ad (summary of the contribution)
presents some proposals for translating the nontranslatable words, whether they are general or cultural or religious.

He proposes to add as few translational equivalents as possible.
For English-Arabic translation he advocates to avoid the mechanical use of English loans as much as possible, especially for words consisting of more than four consonants. Compounding (نحت) should be avoided too, since the Arabic language is a derivational language (لغة اشتقاقية) and not a compounding language (لغة ناحتة). The Arabic language is a rich language in terms of derivation (اشتقاق صرفي) and one should strongly rely on this principle.
Furthermore one can rely on giving existing Arabic words new meanings and enter these new meanings in separate entries. Words like sayyAra ( سيارة), jarIda (
جريدة), TA'ira (
طائرة) and maTAr (مطار) may serve as examples for this method.
And perhaps reliance on extensive explanation and illustration with examples is higly necessary if practial explanation is aimed at.

So this author seems to favour the position taken by so many Arab lexicographers that derivation and the adding of new meanings to existing words in a dictionary are acceptable mechanisms to translate nontranslatable words in Arabic. And the inclusion of descriptions or explanations is recommended "if practical explanation is aimed at".
But what other aim could a FL-Arabic dictionary for speakers of Arabic have?

I am wondering what the author means with this statement. Are derivation and adding new meanings, according to the author, acceptable methods to enrich the Arabic language with new words as equivalents for nontranslatable words? I.e. the lexicographer himself is entitled to include neologisms in his dictionary in order to enrich the Arabic vocabulary, and thus, to enable the Arabic speaking dictionary user to express himself in Arabic about phenomena for which he was not able to do so untill he consulted the dictionary? But if the user consults the dictionary as a passive dictionary, i.e. for understanding, one may wonder if the user will be satisfied after finding an Arabic neologism he has never seen before, and of which he does not know the meaning.

Another position is taken by the authors of the Krahl/Gharieb Arabic-German dictionary, who explicitely state they have only incorporated those neologisms that were found in authentic texts, or if experts in certain fields have confirmed a certain term is being used in actual practice.


A somewhat similar position is taken by S. Doniach who states: "The modern bilingual dictionary can be considered a systematic presentation of modern Arabic as it is, without any distortion (تحوير) or invented expressions (عبارات مبتكرة) on which no agreement has been reached yet."


To conclude I want to raise the question why dictionary compilers may decide to 'invent' new words as translation equivalents for foreign words/concepts. Is this related to a certain way of language purism in order to prevent the use of loan words? Do they realize the dictionary users still will be left in confusion?
The result of this policy will be the existence of ghost words, i.e. words which do only occur in dictionaries and not in authentic texts.


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last updated 12/07/2004 09:44 +0200
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