Arabic Language Blog

Word formation and the use of Arabic dictionaries Posted by on Feb 27, 2009 in Grammar

Most Arabic words are formed based on a root and certain patterns. The root typically consists of 3 letters, e.g. (ك ت ب). These letters can be used in a number of formations or patterns to make derivations or words that are related in meaning to the root, e.g. (كاتب)“writer”, (كتابة) “writing”, (كتاب) “book”, (مكتبة) “library”, (مكتب) “office”, etc. The relationship between the root and the pattern is systematic. For most three lettered verbs, the doer of the action follows the pattern (فاعل), e.g. (كتب/ كاتب) “wrote/writer”, (عمل/ عامل) “worked/worker”, (حكم/ حاكم) “ruled/ruler”, etc. Knowledge of the root system and the patterns is very important for building one’s vocabulary. This knowledge is also important for the use of Arabic dictionaries.

Arabic monolingual dictionaries (Arabic-Arabic) and some bilingual dictionaries like (Arabic-English) for example Hans Wher’s are not like English dictionaries. Words in Arabic dictionaries are listed according to the root of the word. For example, to search of the meaning of the word (مكتبة), we do not search under the letter (م) which is the first letter of the word. We have to find the root of the word which is (ك ت ب) and search for the word under (ك). Roots are listed alphabetically and all words that come under a certain root are given in the same entry regardless of the first letter in them.

Finding out the root of the word is not very easy. It is very important to recognize all the prefixes and suffixes and take them off. Sometimes, there are infixes as well that must be taken out. All the letters that are added to verbs for conjugation must also be removed. The following examples give words and their roots. It should be noted that there are words that have 4-lettered roots, e.g. (ترجم) “translate”.



(خ د م)



(ق ب ل)



(ع ل م)



(ع ل م)



(ع ل م)



(ع ل م)



(ع ل م)

Keep learning Arabic with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. usman:

    great work!

  2. Louisa:

    Thank you this really useful. You mention verbs with 4 letter roots like ترجم and I was just wondering what is the Arabic word to refer to these? Can you say فعل ربعاي or does this mean something different. Many thanks.