How to study Dictionaries and Lexicons?
A dictionary is simply a book that contains a list of words and their meanings that are or were commonly in use. A lexicon doesn't define the words. A lexicon in linguistics is the entire inventory or set of language lexemes. A lexeme [concept] is the smallest unit of a language that bears some meaning. In Arabic language the smallest unit is the root word from where the chains of derivatives emerge to form the branches or the family of that root word which contains the essence of root in all of them.
Dictionary is a list of vocabularies that individuals know or use regularly. Dictionary is different from lexicon because vocabulary is about what an individual or group of people uses, in addition to that the vocabularies keeps on growing whereas lexicon is strictly based on the language itself.
A lexicographer or a lexicologist is a compiler or writer of a dictionary; a student of the lexical component of language. Lexicographer compiles information based on etymology or origin of the word. There are many lexicographers having different views on the meanings of single word; that’s the reason why we find range of meanings for a single word. The work of a good lexicographer is to provide an idea or concept or a hint the meaning of the word and it is the job of the student to deduce or pick the correct essence of the word using his/her own power of deduction that connects with the context and makes sense to his/her overall understanding.
When a translator undertakes the job of translating any book of foreign or old language he has to come across various meanings of a single word. If he does not have the overall idea of the theme of the book his job becomes more difficult. Right themes are the vital key for correct interpretation of any book or message otherwise any amount of grammar or knowledge of linguistic is of no use.
Deducting the correct meaning from the range of meanings needs a lot of common sense, only bookish knowledge is not sufficient. Deduction of the meanings is to derive a logical conclusion based on the context of the subject and not on preconceived assumptions. Translation must be purely done on the merit or on the basis of the context. To deduce the meaning is to figure something out based on the overall information that we already understand. Those who are simple readers may or may not understand the reason of explanation or tafseer of that particular word. Some of them may search in for reference books or lexicons or seek their scholar’s help for the confirmation of their understanding of that particular word but they will never apply their own mind or common sense because they are conditioned not to think independently. Cult mentality is the main enemy of using our own common sense. Such people will always require crutches of reference books and guides as they insist on the exact meaning of what the lexicographer had entered in the lexicon. One must understand lexicographers are humans and they also have their limitations, plus decoding an old language is not at all easy.
How to Use Context to Determine the Meaning of Words:
Often, using the context is the only way to figure out the meaning of the word as it is used in the sentence, passage, or chapter. Sometimes we don’t get a clear idea of the meaning of the word from dictionaries or lexicons alone. We need to have a deep overall understanding of the content we are translating.
One way of looking at ways of interpreting meaning from a text is to think in terms of what is often called context. However, this is a rather woolly term, applied by different people to different things in different disciplines and rather inconsistently at that, so we can further break it down into:
The co-text: the linguistic environment of an unknown item, such as its place in the sentence or the morphemes of which it is composed. What is co-text? An unknown word surrounded by particular words or passage within the text that provides the structure to build the context and helps to determine the meaning of that unknown word in the sense of the context.
The context: what Scott Thornbury calls the “physical and temporal setting” in which discourse occurs and which requires knowledge of its purpose, knowledge of participants and the knowledge of the format of the text whether it is written or spoken or written in theophany style.
As nouns the difference between context and co-text is that context is the surroundings, circumstances, environment, background or settings that determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of an event or other occurrence while co-text is the text that surrounds the node, or word of interest or a key word in the context.
A further way of looking at how this text might be interpreted is to examine different processes which readers employ when they try to comprehend something. The process involves use of linguistic clues present in the text, lexicons and the themes. The process of comprehension also involves using existing schemata (world knowledge) to aid comprehension and treating text as a whole, rather than a series of individual words understood in myopic manner. But for some applying world knowledge to understand the book Quran is a taboo or not acceptable because of the cult mentality or tunnel vision.
The preceding discussion has focused on an example of what’s often called “deducing meaning from context” or “inferring lexical meaning” or other similar appellations. This is a commonly discussed sub skill in the teaching of reading and one you’ll find a few Delta background essays on. It’s also something you can help your learners develop in by working on it in class, showing them how to do it and providing practice in order to help them become more autonomous readers who don’t need to translate every word they don’t know. They are more concerned about the sense and essence of the matter and have the greater tolerance for vagueness. But there are some learners who only read to increase their knowledge of vocabularies. However, when we interpret the meaning of a text, there’s much more going on above the level of the individual word.
For example see how I do translation of Quranic verse - 2:185
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِيْ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَى وَالْفُرْقَانِ
The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur'an [114 chapter book], a guidance for the people / mankind and clear proofs of guidance and criterion – Traditional understanding
Suppose the key words in this sentence is Shahru Ramadan – شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ
The traditional meaning of shahru is month and the meaning of Ramadan is 9th month of Islamic Calendar.
Yes these meanings are present in Modern Arabic Dictionaries as well as in the classical Arabic Lexicon so what is wrong in it. These are the most popular meanings and established meanings and grammatically also it seems to be okay but does the sentence make sense for a thinking mind?
One may ask what is so special or important in this month that the entire 114 chapter holy book was revealed in it. Why not any other month? Is it not important for a thinking mind to know within the context the connection between the phrase Shahru Ramadan and the book of guidance & criterion meant for the entire mankind? Does it not look absurd that the entire mankind has to learn and understand the book Quran? Do we not need to ponder upon it as this Al-Quran is connected with the entire mankind? This 114 chapter book is in Arabic language then why is it meant to be necessary for the entire mankind? Again does it make sense? Do the people living in African, Indian, Amazon and Australian Jungles need to learn Arabic language in order to understand 114 chapter book? Are we not missing something important and big? Is this not the reason that Muslims want to preach the book Quran to the entire world and convert them to Islam when the truth is they themselves have not understood its core message? Is it not important to know or we can leave the understanding as it is? The explanation of this small sentence in 2:185 can fill an entire book.
When the reader is not satisfied with the logic behind this verse he will search for alternatives. Here comes the role of lexicons, dictionaries and grammar.
2:185 - شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِيْ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَى وَالْفُرْقَانِ
The root word of شَهْر is – شهر -
The range of meanings of shahr and its derivatives are - made it apparent, conspicuous, manifest, notorious, notable, commonly known or public, celebrated, renowned, notorious, infamous. In modern Arabic shahr in form ii verb signifies he paraded an offender as a public example. This word is also connected with month, new moon. Mashoor مشهور is famous, celebrated, renowned, notorious, famed, eminent – shaheer شهير is renowned, noted, lustrous, prominent – shaurat شهره signifies fame -الاشتهار is the appearance, conspicuousness, manifestness, notable, publicity etc – الاشهران means the drum or the banner – The phrase shahr saifhu - شهر سيفه also signifies taking out sword from scabbard or he drew his sword and raised it over the people - There are many more meanings, those who are interested may refer to the lexicons.
Sometimes lexicographers give illustrative examples as clues and hints to understand the essence of the word more clearly but sadly some people take that illustration as literal meaning of that word.
The basic meaning of Shahr and its derivatives is manifestation. The lexicographer illustrated an example to express that drawing the sword from the scabbard to raise the sword to its people is the sign of manifestation. But a much respected translator Dr. Qamarzaman made a grave mistake by deriving the meaning of war and sword from the word shahru. He ignored the Arabic meaning for sword given by the same lexicographer and in the same context as saif [سيف]. Ironically his blind devotees are citing it as one of the lexicon meaning of Shahru [شهر]. I just have pity for such arrogant followers; instead of correcting his mistakes they are ready to criticize or fight with others.
By assuming the meaning of shahr as a situation of war Dr. Qamarzaman not only twisted the meaning but totally change the complexion of peaceful message of the book Quran. War and aggression takes us nowhere even if it is done to establish peace on Earth. Every person has his own version of peace. To impose our version of peace is to seed of hate and division of humanity.
Now understanding the essence of Ramadan:
The root word of رَمَضَانَ is –رمض
The range of meanings of ramz - رمض and its derivative are -
Almost all the lexicons that I referred agree that the basic meaning of رمض is related to heat, burning a derivative of word رَمَضَانَ – The earth or the ground became vehemently heated = رمضت الارض – our day became intensely hot = رمض يوما – Ramiz رمض - said of a man, he had his feet burnt or affected by heat of the sun – رمضت عينه – his eyes became hot, so that it almost burned – according to TA his inside became vehemently hot due to fasting [Fr, K], hot by reason of intense thirst [Fr, TA] – cultivation of land [L,TA] – رمضت من الامر = I was distressed and disquiet by the reason of things or affair, I grieved for it – ارتمض signifies he was distressed or disquieted by reason of such a thing – ترميض [S,A,K] – signifies causing to burnt by heat or giving pain due to tardiness -رمض الغنم – he pastured the sheep or goat on the vehemently heated ground – kindled the fire upon the stones / hot ashes for the purpose of cooking the flesh = رمض اللحم – Making the blade knife or blade sharp by beating it between two smooth stone = رمض الموصى = beat the razor between two stones that it may become thin or sharp – الترمض = heaving of soul or being agitated by the tendency of vomit = غشيان النفس - رمضة = process of rubbing…
The basic idea of the word ramz - رمض is that it signifies heat, fire, burn, kindle but when I write friction or combustion for the sake of explanation, the so called expert linguists or dumb people will cry Oh from where you got these meanings it is not even mentioned in the list of meanings. They will not understand that friction and combustion are only extended examples meant for explanation and are the part of heat process as rubbing of two stones or sharpening of knives.
Again to justify the meaning of shahru as war like situation Late Dr. Qamarzaman twisted another important word Ramadan by ignoring the basic meaning of رمض – ramz which basically signifies heat, friction, burn, fire and kindle due to some action. But again the illustration given as example of generation of heat due sharpening of the blades between the two stones is taken literally as the meaning of Ramadan that is “sharpening the blade of a sword”. I have not seen such blatant misuse of lexicons to justify the theme of establishing the “Kingdom of God on Earth” commonly known as Nizam e Rabbubiyat.
Now the question is can we not use modern words to describe our current understanding of the book Quran? Do we have to stick to the exact words of ancient lexicographers who compiled classical lexicons roughly between 1066 C.E - 1768 C.E with limited resources at their disposal –
For example if I take the meaning of nazil as down loading then the same linguist experts will accuse me of twisting meanings of the book Quran. Such people who stick to the exact lexicon meanings and are blind to its spirit are harming the message of the book Quran tremendously.
Sometimes lexicographers give illustrative examples as clues and hints to understand the essence of the word more clearly but sadly some people take that illustration as literal meanings.
The actual objective of Ramadan is to sharpen the intellect, give pain to the brain or pass through the tough times. We cannot achieve anything without the touch of abrasion or heat. Kindle or ignition of knowledge occurs due to the tedious process of sharpening of intellect done between the grinding stones of grief and the intense desire to come out of that grief and anxiety. In such situation the Quran is revealed or downloaded to those agitated minds that are ready to receive guidance and criterion.
Although a good lexicon enter all the possible entries so it is obvious that they will also include the popular meaning of Ramadan رَمَضَانَ that is 9th month of Islamic calendar. It will not make sense if we don't interpret the word Ramadan according to its root meaning. The word Shahru cannot be categorized as month as it is in nominative case; this means it has to show / manifest some state or condition that justifies the downloading of the Quran. No one can achieve the masterpiece of knowledge by just fasting from dawn to dusk or indulging in warfare. Thinking logically and persistently is the only criteria to receive right knowledge, guidance and criterion.
Again for those who have not yet clearly understood the verse; please understand the context and the spirit of how these words are used.
2:185 - شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِيْ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَى وَالْفُرْقَانِ
State of notable manifestation (shahru) is the kindle of knowledge / sharpening the intellect (ramadan), in which the Expression (Al-Quran) is revealed / downloaded, [in it] is the guidance for the agitated minds and clear explanation (bayanati) from the guidance and the Criterion (Al-Furqan).
For further explanation of what is Quran and why it is revealed in Arabic and how it is connected with every human being may read my article on Kitab, Quran & Arabic at –www.ahleaqal.com-