Last updated: May 2, 2021
The best Arabic grammarians were nerds, geniuses and some of them died tragically. In a previous article, I had compiled a list ot the TOP FIVE grammarians of Arabic an Persian decent.
Today, I will feature the TOP FIVE grammarians from Europe. My list is very subjective and marked by the ups and downs of my own learning. It does not follow academic standards.
Table of The greatest Arabic grammarians from the West of all time
- Why and when Europe became interested in Arabic
- The TOP 5 Arabic grammarians and scholars from the West
- No. 1: Edward Lane
- No. 2: William Wright
- No. 3: Thomas Erpenius
- No. 4: Carl Brockelmann
- No. 5: Hans Wehr
- Other big names
Why and when Europe became interested in Arabic
The study of Arabic goes back to the Middle Ages.
The earliest motivation to study Arabic was religion. Christian missionaries tried to convert Muslims to Christianity. This attempt and motivation was slowed down when the Mongols converted to Islam in the 14th century.
Another reason for studying Arabic was the classical scientific work of the Arabs in the fields of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy (between the 8th and 12th century).
Besides, there was the similarity of Arabic and Hebrew and its use for Bible studies. It was believed that studying Arabic helps to gain a deeper understanding of Hebrew.
And there was the money, of course: Arabic was needed for trading which became more and more important since the 13th century. Furthermore, geographers, archeologists, botanists, zoologists were expanding their knowledge and needed to understand the Arabic names.
In the 16th and 17th century, Turkish prisoners-of-war and Arabic-speaking Christians were used as teachers.
The first Arabic grammar books in the West
It all goes back to Christian Arabists who arrived in Toledo in the 12th century. In Muslim Spain, Jews and Mozarabs (Christians once living under Muslim rule) knew Arabic and Spanish.
Spain was probably the first place in Europe where an Arabic grammar was printed: the “Arte para ligeramente saber la lengua araviga” in Granada in 1505.
The TOP 5 Arabic grammarians and scholars from the West
No. 1: Edward Lane
Not many Arabic scholars had so much influence in the West as Edward William Lane (died 1876).
Lane was educated privately, mainly by his parents. Lane had shown some talent for mathematics and classics. Therefore, he was sent to Cambridge but left soon and joined an elder brother in London who worked as an engraver.
During that time, he started to study Arabic on his own and soon acquired great proficiency. However, due to the amount of work and study, he became ill – an attack of fever which nearly proved fatal. Lane decided to change things in his life and moved to Egypt in 1825 (at the age of 24). In Egypt, he fully immersed himself into the society and language. He adopted the native clothes and was often mistaken as a Turk. He took Arabic lessons with two distinguished professors and was instructed in Islam.
His Arabic-English Lexicon (1863-93) is unarguably the best reference tool ever created for people who are not using Arabic-Arabic dictionaries.
The famous dictionary was published in eight volumes during the second half of the 19th century. Lane almost exclusively uses definitions from Arabic dictionaries. Lane stayed in Cairo for seven years to collect the material. It is said that he had worked six days a week on his dictionary. He had some assistants who were granted access to al-Azhar.
Unfortunately, he could not finish his work. He had arrived at the letter Qaf, the 21st letter of the Arabic alphabet, when he died in 1876.
Lane’s great-nephew finished the work later based on some notes by Edward Lane.
Besides, Lane also translated One Thousand and One Nights.
No. 2: William Wright
William Wright (died 1889) was a famous English Orientalist and Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. Wright was educated at St Andrew’s University and later in Halle and Leiden (which both were among the best places to study Semitic languages back then).
He became interested in Syriac (Aramaic) and wrote many highly distinguished works and later turned to Arabic.
His book A Grammar of the Arabic Language is a detailed Arabic grammar which was originally written in German by Carl Caspari. Wright translated the German work and enriched it.
Wright consulted numerous Arabic sources when making additions and corrections to the work of Caspari. His Arabic grammar is still very useful for students of Arabic and much deeper as the common works used by university students. It covers both Sarf and Nahw.
No. 3: Thomas Erpenius
Thomas Erpenius (died 1624) was a Hebrew language expert at Leiden University. He learned in London and Paris where he studied with an Egyptian Copt.
Later, also in France, he met al-Hajari, an emigrant from Spain in the service of the ruler of Morocco, who was in France on a diplomatic mission in 1611. Erpenius could check the quality of his Arabic with the help of al-Hajari. Eventually, in 1613, in Leiden, he published his own grammatica arabica.
Thomas Erpenius was the first European to publish an accurate book of Arabic grammar. He reconciled the Classical Arabic grammatical tradition with the Latin system. Erpenius’s work gives numerous examples. It remained the standard Arabic grammar in Europe for almost 200 (!) years and had a big influence on Silvestre de Sacy, Karl Paul Caspari and William Wright.
No. 4: Carl Brockelmann
Carl Brockelmann (died 1956) was a German Semiticist and probably the foremost orientalist of his generation. He was born in Rostock in Germany in 1868.
He had a great talent for languages is became one of the best experts on almost all known Semitic languages. Had great teachers among them Theodor Nöldeke who himself was often called “the master of the masters“.
Oftentimes, scholars say that he is best known for his multi-volume Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (History of Arabic literature) which included all writers in Arabic to 1937. In my opinion, his best work is his two volume encyclopaedia Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen in zwei Bänden (Outline of the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages in two volumes) which is a comparative grammar of all Semitic languages dealing with grammar and morphology. If you can read German, get this book! It is an amazing source to acquire a deeper understanding of Arabic.
It is quite difficult to get the original edition or even a replica. Thanks to Google, you can read it online!
Even his small book Arabische Grammatik (Arabic grammar) is perfect if you quickly want to check some grammar issues.
No. 5: Hans Wehr
Hans Bodo Gerhardt Wehr (died 1981) was a German Arabist and worked at the University of Münster from 1957–1974 in Germany. He studied Oriental and Roman languages, Egyptology, Chinese, philosophy and the history of religion in Berlin, Leipzig and Halle.
Hans Wehr collected newspaper cuttings containing Arabic expressions which would later become the basis for his most important work: an Arabic-German dictionary.
The dictionary project was funded by the Nazi government, which intended to use it to translate Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Arabic.
With his colleagues, Hans Wehr collected Arabic roots. His team included his long-time colleague Andreas Jacobi, whose father was a Jew, and the German-Jewish Arabist Hedwig Klein. Neither would survive the years that followed: Hedwig Klein was murdered in Auschwitz and Andreas Jacobi had to enlist and was reported missing.
The Arabic-German dictionary was completed in 1945, but not published until 1952. Although quite outdated regarding modern technology terms and slang, the “Wehr” emains the most widely used Arabic-English dictionary. The latest edition of the dictionary was published in 1995 and is Arabic–German only.
The dictionary arranges its entries according to the traditional Arabic root order which is its biggest advantage until today.
There is a difference to Lane’s lexicon: Wehr only used words and expressions that are attested in context. It was mainly based on combing modern works of Arabic literature for lexical items. Lane, on the other hand, had used medieval Arabic dictionaries.
Other big names
Many other grammarians could be in this list. Some big names:
Guillaume Postel (died 1581)
He set out for the Levant in 1535 with the king’s first ambassador to the sultan. He then devoted himself to the study of Arabic in Istanbul. He already knew Hebrew.
He became acquainted with the Ajurrumiyya and other works. Based on these works, Postel made the first major contribution to the knowledge of Arabic grammar in Europe. The Grammatica Arabica in 1543 was the first of its kind to be printed and to make use of Arabic types.
The best French Arabist of the 16th century, Guillaume Postel, said that the knowledge of Arabic would enable a traveler to make his way from Morocco to the Moluccas without an interpreter. That time, Leiden University in Holland decided to found a chair of Arabic.
Gotthelf Bergsträsser (died 1933)
He was a German linguist specializing in Semitic studies, generally considered to be one of the greatest of the twentieth century. Bergsträsser mostly engaged in the study of Arabic, focusing on the history of the text of the Qur’an.
Bergsträsser left many of his planned works unfinished (including the rest of his Hebrew grammar and his grammar of spoken Aramaic), when he disappeared while mountaineering in Bavaria in 1933.
The local authorities recounting that Bergträsser had fallen off a sharp incline during the excursion and had injured his head. His death was the subject of speculation with some arguing that he was killed by a student for his anti-Nazi views.
Wolfdietrich Fischer (died 2013)
After graduating from the Melanchthon Gymnasium in Nuremberg in 1947, Fischer studied Semitic philology, Islamic studies and Turkology at the universities of Erlangen and Munich.
His main academic teacher was the Arabist Hans Wehr (1909-1981), with whom he also received his doctorate in Erlangen in 1953 with the dissertation Die demonstrativen Bildungen der neuarabischen Dialekte.
He is the author of a good and condensed summary of Classical Arabic grammar for beginners/intermediate (A grammar of Classical Arabic). But the main reason why I have put him on this list is his amazing work on Arabic syntax which he wrote with two colleagues: Syntax der Arabischen Schriftsprache der Gegenwart.
If you know German, you should have a look at this work (more volumes!) in your library. Unfortunately, the entire collection is insanely expensive as usual when professors write books…
and many more…
Unfortunately, I am not familiar with Arabic grammarians from India and Southeast Asian countries and with Turkish/Ottoman authors. If a reader wants to write about that, please let me know – I would highly appreciate it.