Historical Dictionaries: Comparisons and Approaches

The ACRPS has published Historical Dictionaries: Comparisons and Approaches by multiple authors and edited by Hassan Hamzé (641 pp.), as part of the Lexicography and Linguistics Studies series that aims to overcome the challenges of the modern Arab renaissance by attending to the Arabic language and stimulating academic production. A nation rises through its tongue, without secluding itself from foreign languages – an objective for which the ACRPS founded the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. The Center launched the Tourjouman series of book translations into Arabic on 25 May 2013, concurrently with the launch of the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic (DHDA). The series works to publish outstanding Arabic books on linguistics and lexicography as a fresh contribution to the language’s rich lexicological capital.

As the title suggests, the book offers sixteen comparisons and approaches from Arab scholars as well as Lynda Mugglestone, English specialist in the history of the English language and lexicography, and Lutz Edzard, German Arabic and Semitic linguistics expert. Some contributors specialize in lexicography, literature, humanities, education, classical languages, and computer science, while others have backgrounds in general, Persian, and comparative linguistics.

Bilingual dictionaries predate monolingual ones, given the pressing need for intercultural communication. In Europe, the production of “historical dictionaries” began gradually with the Brothers Grimm in nineteenth-century Germany, out of a need for German unity and to unite the dialects through a common origin. In the Arab world, the conventional wisdom was that any change to the language is corruption. Arabic is a language of revelation, not of convention, and language development is a kind of deterioration that results from interactions with non-Arabs; ever since the early era of language documentation, Arabic dictionaries report minimal changes.

A remarkable contradiction is that European dictionaries featured Arabic terms such as algebra, zenith, and nadir that did not appear in Arabic dictionaries, which rarely entered new words. It was a Dutch lexicologist who addressed this issue in an 1881 Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes, and even al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ notes that Butrus al-Bustani, Said Chartouni, and Louis Maalouf attempted “to rectify this shortcoming, under the influence of modern Western dictionaries”.

When the Academy of the Arabic Language was established in Cairo in 1932, its founding charter called for “the composition of a historical dictionary of the Arabic language”. Yet it was unable to carry out this goal for three decades, until German orientalist August Fischer joined the Academy and presented his project in 1936. More regrettably, the Academy’s role was limited to granting approval, while Fischer alone proceeded with the academic work with the help of “an Egyptian assistant […] and several Egyptian readers and copyists” according to the introduction by President of the Academy Ibrahim Madkour. To make matters worse, the project halted when Fischer died: what else could have happened when he was its only architect?

The book comes in two sections and sixteen chapters. The first section is theoretical and addresses how dictionaries relate to history, beginning with Hassan Hamzé’s argument that historiography is the most significant missing element in Arabic dictionaries.

In Chapter 2, Ramzi Baalbaki traces the characteristics of historical consciousness in Arabic lexicographical heritage. In Chapter 3, Ibrahim Ben Mrad discusses levels of historiography in dictionaries based on textual and lexicological corpora, in reference to the challenges of writing the history of Classical Arabic. In Chapter 4, Ali Al Kasimi explores various methods of historical lexicography according to a given dictionary’s objectives, target audience, historical philosophy, and lexicological school. In Chapter 5, Abd Al-Ali Wadghiri studies the overlapping relationship between etymology and historiography, arguing that etymology is a key part of a word’s history and that the historiographical process is etymological par excellence.

In Chapter 6, Houcine Soudani explores the issue of nuclear meaning, from which all meanings of a word descend through the course of its use. In Chapter 7, Hassan Tayyan takes a statistical phonological approach to ancient Arabic dictionaries. In Chapter 8, translated from English, Ali-Ashraf Sadeghi discusses the case of the Comprehensive Dictionary of the French Language. In Chapter 9, translated from English, Lynda Mugglestone addresses the first edition of the Oxford Historical English Dictionary, comparing it with Clark’s English Words in War-Time that documents neologisms from World War I.

The second section concerns the DHDA, with an introduction from Abdelhamid al Harrama on the dictionary’s importance in re-reading Arab-Islamic heritage. It also addresses the dictionary’s attitude toward Semitic cognates and borrowings. In Chapter 10, translated from English, Lutz Edzard studies these cognates, comparing between vocabulary borrowed from other Semitic languages appearing in etymological dictionaries of Hebrew and Ge’ez. In Chapter 11, Mohammed Maraqten discusses Arabic historical lexicography in light of other Semitic languages. In Chapter 12, Muhammad Obaidi explores the issue of meaning in lexicography through his experience with the DHDA.

In Chapter 13, Mohamed Mahjoub takes up the issue of labelling in the DHDA and how it relates to definition, as the former determines a lexicographical unit’s morphological and structural characteristics while the latter defines its semantic and conceptual features. In Chapter 14, Hussain Alzeraee addresses three issues: the role of labels in verifying a word’s structure; the representation of essential attributes; and examples of definition evolving alongside meaning. In Chapter 15, Rachid Belahbib discusses the reasoning and guidelines for the use of al-Khalil bin Ahmad’s Kitāb al-ʿAyn as a source for the DHDA. Finally, in Chapter 16 Adi Wuld Adab considers the transition of the DHDA’s applications from historiography of words toward historiography of texts, examining the opening verses of 46 poems by 35 poets.

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