Introduction to the Arabic Root Key Dictionary

Hidden Assets of the Arabic Language

The Arabic language has great structural logic. Unlike English, which has evolved from different Indo-European languages, Arabic is built on a consonantal root system that links words often of associated meaning. For example the Arabic consonants س ر د (d r s) are embedded in the following four words whose English equivalents, because of their disparate linguistic sources, bear no formal connection to each other.

Words with root: س ر د Transcription of words with root: d r s English equivalent English word derived from
درس dars lesson Latin
مدرسة madrassa school Greek
دراسة diraasa study Latin
مدرّس mudarris teacher Old English

Such groupings of Arabic words can be a great aid in building one’s vocabulary, but up until now the student has had no reliable way of discovering such links before becoming sufficiently proficient in the language to be able to dis-embed the root letters and thereby use an Arabic to English dictionary. This process can present a challenge even to the initiated when certain root letters are transformed or dropped.

A Key to Buried Treasure

The difficulty of identifying the proper root letters for any given word is completely eliminated by the presence of the Root Key, which appears beside all results in the English and the Categories searches in the Root Key Dictionary. This link leads directly from an English word search and its Arabic definition to the group of semantically associated words derived from the same Arabic root. For example if one looks up any of the four English words in the chart above and clicks on the Root Key a page will be called up with all the entries in the dictionary (more than 30) meaningfully associated with the root س ر د (d r s). Thus the learner is given immediate access to valuable material that would otherwise remain buried in an Arabic dictionary. Regular use of the Root Key will lead the learner not only to seek semantic connections between words within a root family but to look and listen for root consonants, the ultimate key to learning Arabic.

Untangling the Arabic Verb

Up until now it has been necessary for anyone wishing to conjugate a verb in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic to identify the root type (sound, geminate, hollow, or defective), then insert the root letters into 1 of 10 possible paradigms appropriate to that root type. Add to this the complexity of hamzated verbs, the subtleties of modifying prefixes and suffixes for roots with taa', nuun and shiin, plus the problem of pronunciation, and one can easily understand what a challenge the Arabic verb has presented. Now with the click of a button (and behind-the-scenes help from 150 specially designed matrices) the user has instant access to complete and clearly designed conjugation tables for 1000 common verbs, 200 of which have full audio. Time can be spent listening to the important verbs and internalizing their pattern rather than attemting to adapt root consonants to a plethora of written paradigms. The same system has been adapted to the verb in Modern Standard Arabic.

A New Approach to Learning a Diglossic Language

Arabic, as a diglossic language with two complementary forms, one for conversation that varies regionally, and another standardized version for writing and formal public communication, poses a didactic problem that has yet to be successfully resolved. In theory the most satisfactory approach is to introduce the two versions of the language together so the student learns from the start to speak a specific regional dialect (Egyptian, Moroccan, Levantine, etc.) and simultaneously to read and write the formal language of Modern Standard Arabic. A serious stumbling block for this method has been the lack of properly coordinated teaching materials for the two different forms of the language. By offering Egyptian Colloquial Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic in the same lexical format with a consistent system of transcription, the Root Key Dictionary points the way to a solution of this problem. In the near future other major dialects will be added to the Root Key Dictionary, and teaching materials, such as a reference grammar, will be developed in coordination with the Dictionary to create an integrated Arabic Root system.

Bringing Life to the Written Word

Few people find dictionaries fun to read. For this reason the Egyptian Colloquial Arabic version of the Root Key Dictionary is livened up with several thousand idiomatic and slang expressions, often true linguistic treasures. Once mastered, these expressions will keep the conversation flowing. The more colorful of them have been flagged with red to help the inexperienced stay out of trouble.

Transforming Passive to Active Learning

The true value of the Personal Archive can only be appreciated once a student has loaded it with a block of vocabulary and begun to use the show-hide options for the columns in conjunction with the Root Key and the audio. Mastery of vocabulary, the greatest challenge in learning a language, becomes a process of exploration and discovery built on the wealth of associated meanings inherent in the Arabic root system. Vocabulary will be acquired naturally through logical association rather than by the passive memorization of phonemes.


Finally a word of recognition to those who have contributed directly and indirectly to this work. First of all for Egyptian Colloquial Arabic the Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic (El-Said Badawi and Martin Hinds), compiled in the1970's by a group of researchers under the direction of Dr. Karl Stowasser and published in 1986, serves as the major source for core vocabulary . To this we have added 10,000 Arabic entries mainly to fill out the Categories. Most recently Egyptian Colloquial Arabic Verbs (2012) by Matthew Aldrich has provided much help in bringing order to the section with the conjugation tables. For Modern Standard Arabic The Frequency Dictionary of Arabic by Tim Buckwalter and Dilworth Parkinson (2011) and Arabic Learner's Dictionary (2013) by Matthew Aldrich have furnished valuable controls over the vast range of material in the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (3rd edition 1976). Matthew Aldrich's Modern Standard Arabic Verbs (2013) has been useful in developing the conjugation tables. Here in Cairo my colleague Ayman Ismail has overseen every step of the editorial process as well as doing the lion's share of the recording. Among the others who did recordings, special thanks go to Mena and Peter Tawfiq. For the software Giuseppe Mamorella patiently assisted me over the course of 5 years in building the prototype of this program, which Michael Meunier and his team have brought to its present state of completion. I am indebted to them all.

Charlotte Sullivan, Ph.D.