Whether you are a writer, translator or simply learning a foreign language, a dictionary can be your best friend. In fact, even a native speaker of a given language has to resort -at some point in their lives- to dictionaries when facing an obscure term. These reference books do not only offer definitions of terms but also details on pronunciation, usage, etymology and oftentimes their translation into a preselected language. At first glance, the dictionary seems like an effective and user-friendly tool for the learner. When dealing with Arabic dictionaries, however, the process can be deceitful.
Generally, wordbooks are arranged in alphabetical order. This means that if we encounter an unknown term in English, Spanish or French, etc. all we have to do is proceed with the search in the list of terms beginning with the corresponding letter. Whether the word is in the past, future or present tense, the process remains unaffected. This is because Germanic and Romance languages grammaticize the term in hand by adding suffixes. For example, the conjugation of the French verb “jouir” in first, second and third-person is: “je jouis“, “tu jouis” and “il jouit“. The suffixes used to distinguish the grammatical person substitute the ending of the verb (in this case, the suffix “ir“). This allows the reader to identify the infinitive form and, despite the irregularities found in these languages, the pattern is somewhat easy to grasp.
In contrast, the Arabic language favors adding prefixes to conjugate verbs. The general rule of searching for the term by its initial letter in a dictionary is naturally invalid. For instance, the conjugation of the verb “kataba” in first, second and third-person is: “aktubu”, “taktubu” and “yaktubu”. Apart from the prefix, the root of the verb is also slightly altered. Interestingly, an Arabic language noob might be very well aware of the meaning of the basic verb “kataba”, which means “to write”. However, when finding the verb in the third-person form, they might fail to establish an instant link between the two verbs. To compound the problem, the learner’s vision might be too clouded to realize the term in hand is a verb, and therefore attempts to perform a search on the dictionary to no avail.
To put things into perspective, Arabic morphology generates terms using a “morphological balance”. This can help the learner to strip the word off all the affixes attached to it in order to “weigh it down”. In the context of dictionaries, the morphological balance must be used as a guide to obtain the stem of a word. When this is achieved, the learner is left with the root of the verb that caused the uncertainty. This pure form of the verb is typically the past tense, and will aid the learner to perform a successful search on the dictionary.