advanced, beginning, intermediate

Online Arabic dictionaries

dictionary cartoon I am often asked what Arabic dictionaries I can recommend. In this article I will discuss four Arabic–English and/or English–Arabic online dictionaries, highlighting their advantages and drawbacks.

Oxford Dictionaries Premium

This is by far my fav♥rite online bilingual dictionary for Arabic and English. It is a paid subscription, but it only costs about $20 per year (giving you access to all nine available languages!). Purchase your subscription here. This dictionary has a lot of nice features of use to the beginner and the more advanced user alike:

  • Complete and clear basic information. At the top of a dictionary entry, all of the basic information about the word is presented clearly, such as the past and present forms, as well as the مصدر maṣdar “verbal noun”, if it is a verb:

    Note also that tiny little, light blue “listen” icon, which you can click on to hear the pronunciation.
  • Keyboard. If you don’t have your computer configured with an Arabic keyboard (or if you aren’t comfortable typing in Arabic), the Oxford dictionary input field lets you use a point and click keyboard):
  • Excellent word analysis. Especially when reading unvocalized Arabic texts, many words are either hard to analyze (e.g., due to disappearing root consonants or prefixes and suffixes) or ambiguous. But with the Oxford dictionary you can simply type the word in as it appears (no need to add vowels or other diacritics) and it will perform a morphological analysis, listing all of the possibilities. Look at what a good job it did at finding the different possible readings of يجد:

    You youngins have no idea how good you have it! Back in the olden days when the only dictionaries were printed on dead trees, one had to look at a word and figure out what all the possible ways it could be analyzed and pronounced. Then you had to look up all those different possibilities until you found the meaning that fit.

  • Complete conjugation tables. If you click on “see how this word is used” at the top of an Oxford entry, you will be presented with a complete conjugation table, including all persons and numbers and all moods.
  • Many complete and useful examples. Sometimes words mean different things in particular contexts. Oxford gives lots of useful examples so you can see the different ways in which a word is used.

The only drawbacks of this dictionary I can think of are the fact that you have to pay a subscription fee for it (but come on, it’s practically nothing!) and the absence of some literary and archaic vocabulary. (For that sort of vocabulary, you are better off using the Arabic-English and monolingual Arabic dictionaries on the free Almaany site described below. But you will need to use your own morphological analysis skills for those dictionaries.)

Google Translate

Google Translate is the automated translation service that everybody loves to hate. Although Google Translate can be useful for certain languages and certain tasks, I never really use it for Arabic. But since my pupils often tell me they use it, I thought I’d try it out to see how it fares. I found it to have some great features, in spite of one enormous drawback.

First I typed in simple Standard Arabic sentence. Its translation was correct:

This sentence shows that Google Translate knows a thing or two about Arabic. For example, it knows that compound verb forms consisting of two words like كان يتمشّى kaana yatamashshaa ‘strolled, used to stroll’ can be separated by a subject, in this case مزارع ’al-muzaariʕ ‘the farmer’, because it translated the phrase كان المزارع يتمشّى kaana l-muzaariʕ yatamashshaa correctly as ‘the farmer walked’.

If you click on the “listen” icon on Google Translate, you can also listen to the sentence being read, and it actually does it quite well! And there is also a (poor/very imprecise) transliteration of the Arabic, which some people might also find helpful.

An oddity with the sentence was an inconsistency in the interpretation of the word مزارع. When no short vowels are written, this word can be read either as ’al-muzaariʕ ‘the farmer’ or as ’al-mazaariʕ ‘the farms’. Oddly, while the word has been correctly translated with the more probable option ‘the farmer’, the transliteration goes instead for the ’al-mazaariʕ ‘the farms’ option.

This ‘farmer/farms’ problem is indicative of the major drawback of Google Translate: If you type in a single ambiguous word, it will only translate one possibilty. So, if you type in just مزارع, Google Translation will only tell you that it means ‘farmer’. Nowhere on the page are you told that the word also has other possibly interpretations. Compare this to what happens when I search for مزارع in Oxford Dictionaries:

There are very many cases like this where you will need multiple translation possibilities to be able to understand an Arabic sentence. Sometimes a single word has multiple interpretations, such as يُسَلِّم yusallim, which can mean either ‘to deliver, hand over’ or ‘to greet’, depending on how it is used. At other times, two completely different words are spelled the same way if the short vowels and other diacritics are omitted, such as the case with بنت, which means ‘girl’ if pronounced bint but ‘she built’ when pronounced banat.

My advice: Use Google Translate judiciously if either you really can’t afford a subscription to Oxford Dictionaries Premium or when you’re in a situation when you can’t log into your account. Also, it’s probably more useful when you can type in a complete sentence rather than one individual word. In fact, this is something you can’t even do with a real dictionary.

Cambridge Dictionary

Cambridge Dictionary has a free, one-way English-Arabic dictionary, which seems mostly geared towards Arabic-speaking users. However, it is quite good at giving good equivalents for the various nuances of an English word. Here is the beginning of the entry for the word ‘good’:

Almaany

Almaany has seven different free, two-way bilingual (X-Arabic/Arabic-X) dictionaries, including one in English. This is probably your best all-round choice if you don’t want to pay for a subscription to Oxford.

Almaany does a bit of word analysis, giving you different possibilities for a word entered without diacritics, but you cannot count on it finding all the relevant possibilities for a particular word. For example, if I search for the word يجب, which would most often be either yajib ‘must’ or yujib ‘he answers (jussive mood)’, it only finds the much less frequent yajubb ‘he cancels’. But if you are advanced enough that you can figure out what the third person masculine singular past tense form is (or possible such forms are) of an arbitrary verb you encounter, this dictionary is an excellent resource.

Here’s the result of looking up مزارع, which, as explained above, could either be muzaariʕ ‘farmer’ or mazaariʕ ‘farms’. Almaany only finds the former meaning:

Almaany also has a point-and-click Arabic keyboard, just like Oxford.

Advanced users will find the monolingual Arabic dictionary on this site indispensible. It is quite extensive and can enlighten you on literary and archaic vocabulary items that you won’t find in other online resources. Also, my impression is that Almaany does a better job at word analysis, catching more possibilities, with its monolingual dictionary that with the Arabic-English one.



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