A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Daily Star on Hans Wehr, Followed by Me on Hans Wehr

Beirut's Daily Star recently ran a piece called, "Wehr Next: On the joys of Reading Arabic Dictionaries," which should be appreciated by any English speaker who has studied or is studying Arabic, or who uses it regularly.  Hans Wehr's Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is the vademecum of English speakers working on or in Arabic, as its German original is (I presume) for German speakers.

Daily Star's illustration, not mine
The Daily Star article is pretty good, but with some observations that will seem simplistic for veteran Arabists:
"One paper is called the “idha’a tijariyya.” So I’m trying to translate that and all that comes to mind is that Lebanese radio station jingle – ‘Idha’a al-sharq ... in Beyrouth.’
Hans Wehr isn’t of much use because, quite honestly, I have no f?ing clue what the jidhr [root] of  “idha’a” is. According to Google Translate, “idha’a tijariyya” means “commercial radio,” which is confusing, as I thought I worked for a social development consulting firm, not a radio station.
“Consulting with a native Arabic-speaker,” Dushku says, “I learned ‘idha’a tijariyya’ is the ‘commercial broadcast announcement’ – as in the announcement of your registration as a commercial company. Who knew?”
Excuse me? "I have no f?ing clue what the jidhr [root] of “idha’a” is." (More properly idha‘a by the way.) Beyond the unusual choice of a "?" to euphemize an expletive, if you have "no f?ing clue" about how to determine an Arabic root, why are you being so "f?ing" pretentious as to use the term "jidhr"?   Dictionaries are organized by roots and you need enough knowledge of grammar to figure out the root, and that's how Arabic dictionaries work. No big deal. And the root is ذ ع ى.

Next complaint:
Heidelberg University Arabist Ines Weinrich says Wehr is the dictionary she uses most often, “although it is not well-equipped for texts from the seventh century.”
If there’s vocabulary in that seventh-century Arabic text of yours that really needs translating, she elaborates, “you may refer to some Latin or French [dictionaries], and, of course, the Arabic-English Lexicon of E.W. Lane.”
Well, duh. What part of "the Modern Written Language" don't you understand? Would you go to Webster for seventh-century Anglo-Saxon? (To be fair, Arabic has changed far less, but even Arabs need commentaries for Qur'anic Arabic. This isn't what Wehr is trying to do. When I work medieval texts, I use Lane, Kazimirski, Dozy, and the Lisan al-‘Arab, though I might check Wehr first, just in case.

Other issues raised are alphabetization versus root-based order, and utility in understanding spoken Arabic, an odd intrusion in discussion of  dictionary of "Modern Written Arabic."There are many colloquial dictionaries, but Wehr isn't one of them.

Hans Wehr (1909-1981) was a German Arabic scholar who created what has become the standard dictionary of Modern Written Arabic into German. In 1961 it was translated into English and edited by J Milton Cowan (no period after the "J": Cowan, whom I met once long ago, really did have just "J" as his first name.) and became the essential Arabic-English dictionary. Some English-speaking students of Arabic before that time had to own the German version as well as a German-English dictionary.

My first Wehr was a hard-cover purchased at ridiculously high cost in Cairo in 1972. The bulk of it survives, though the hard back cover is long gone and so are some pages, perhaps a whole binding signature, of parts of ha plus waw and ya. Once it came out in paperback, I acquired that, and two or three copies of the second and third editions are somewhere in this house, buried under other books. The fourth edition paperback is just to my left as I write, and a hardcover sits on my desk at work. I'm actually surprised that in five years of blogging, I haven't posted specifically on Wehr before this.

The first edition was published in German in 1952, but Wehr noted in early editions that most of the work was set in type during World War II. Wehr's exact relations with the Nazi regime are a bit fuzzy, though he was apparently a party member. I've seen it suggested the work was commissioned in order to facilitate translating Mein Kampf into Arabic, but that makes no sense as it's an Arabic-German dictionary, not the other way around, and besides, Mein Kampf had already appeared in Arabic in 1937. As the Daily Star article notes:
“Yes he was an NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers' Party] member (joined in 1940),” Hanssen notes, “but defenders point to his efforts to save his Jewish dictionary assistant, Hedwig Klein, from the Gestapo, ultimately unsuccessfully. His ‘defenders’ in the Orientalist guild downplay his critique of Zionism and support of Arab nationalism.”
And the dictionary has continued to be updated and revised since Wehr's death. It remains the essential work.


Jonathan said...

Ha. I still have my black buckram bound copy printed in Germany and bought in 1972 and still largely intact after several repair jobs and a fair amount of Scotch tape. I remember it cost me 15 pounds sterling, which was more than two week's rent. I was going to buy another copy but then I found the searchable online version. So much quicker searching. Since I've already bought three versions (one for the country house and one for my son) I don't feel guilty.But it's getting out of date. Mine has my own addenda that should be into the next edition

David Mack said...

St. Hans made life for Arabists so much easier! May he rest in peace, and allahu yirhamu.