Last updated on November 28, 2020
Al-Khalīl ibn ’Ahmad al-Farāhīdī (الْخَلِيل بن أَحْمَد الْفَراهِيدِي), a grammarian who was born in 718 (100 AH) in present-day Oman. But that was not his only achievement… His work Kitāb al-‘Ayn (كِتاب الْعَيْن), the Book of the Letter Ayn, is regarded as the first dictionary of the Arabic language and one of the earliest known dictionaries of any language.
In the early days of Islam, scholars and commentators had already started to paraphrase words of the Qur’an.
‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbās (عَبْد الله بن عَبّاس), one of the Prophet’s cousins and companions, compiled a list of words of foreign origin. These compilations were mainly based on topics, e.g., words that dealt with a camel or a horse.
Who was al-Khalīl, who is often just called al-Farāhīdī?
He lived in Basra in present-day Iraq and was a famous grammarian of the Basra school (الْبَصْرِيُّونَ) of grammar. He was the first scholar to classify the consonants of Arabic and explained why they are important: the root. He found out that every quadriliteral root (4 root letters) contains at least one of the following consonants: ب – ف – م – ر – ن – ل.
How did he arrange words?
Al-Farāhīdī’s arrangement of the letters does not follow the alphabetical order we use today. He used a phonetic order according to the place of articulation in mouth and throat, from the pharyngeal consonants (ع, ح) to the labials (ف, ب).
You produce pharyngeals by making the muscles in your throat tighter so that air can’t flow freely. Labials are made with the two lips. According to this system, the order begins with the letter ﻉ which is also the reason for the dictionary’s name.
Al-Farāhīdī saw in the ع the first and most essential sound of Arabic because no letter comes deeper from the throat. His dictionary ends with the letter م which is the last letter pronounced with the lips.
Later, roots were sorted alphabetically, starting with the last of the three radicals, then the first, and then the second. This is called rhyming order. For poets, the last letter is often the most important one.
Remark: The most famous Arabic dictionary is Lisān al-‘Arab (لِسان الْعَرَب), compiled by Ibn Manzūr (ابن مَنْظُور) in the early 14th century (711 AH). It contains around 80,000 entries.
Since you like history, you may find the following articles interesting:
- The “Knight’s Tour” – how an ancient Arab solved an intriguing chess puzzle
- Who are the greatest Arabic grammarians of all time from Europe?
- Who are the greatest Arabic grammarians of all time?
- How to learn Arabic calligraphy – an introduction (part 1)
- The strange term Semitic languages: What does it mean?