Cool books on languages

Over the past few years as I’ve studied the languages of the Middle East, I’ve managed to find some cool books about the various languages spoken there. I’m missing a few languages, though.

In addition to that, when my mother was in college she too studied the languages of the Middle East, and so a lot of the following are books she found along the way, and are thus sufficiently old to garner a great deal of my respect.

If I were ever fortunate enough to find myself with a steady job and enough disposable income to indulge in something, I think I’d collect old books on languages.

This is divided into nine parts: Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Multiple languages (the coolest section.), Judeo-Arabic, Miscellaneous, Orientalist books (pending), Art and Calligraphy (pending).


The Hans Wehr

This is THE book to have if you study Arabic, without it you’re grasping at straws. Its the basic dictionary, the industry standard.

It’s organized based on tri-consonantal roots, as opposed to alphabetically. So you identify the root of whatever word it is you’re looking up, and go there, because Hans will tell you allllllll the other words that have a similar, linked meaning. This tri-consonantal root structure is what makes Semitic languages so fascinating and fun.

This particular one was a present to my mother from my grandmother, and she had it rebound in Istanbul, and when I rediscovered it on a shelf in my house, it has subsequently never left my side in 3 countries and as many states.

Paradigms of Classical and Modern Arabic Verbs

The ultimate verb grammar reference. This book is organized by weak root, and then just runs down the 10 forms with every possible conjugation of that weak root. I found this at Grant and Cutler in London one time, and realized I found the motherlode of Sarf.

Using Arabic Synonyms

This is an amazing linguistic creation and undertaking. Dilworth B. Parkinson teaches at BYU and is one of the stars of our generation in terms of Arabic scholarship and achievement. This is a dictionary of synonyms, organized by ‘head words’ or most commonly occurring word from a set of synonyms. For example, if you’ve studied first year Arabic you might know that family is 3aila, but you may not know ahl, usra, hamila, 3ashira, qabila, diyar etc. This book is organized several ways. First by Arabic-English dictionary, then by an English-Arabic index and an Arabic-Arabic headword lookup. So if you want to know other words like qabila, you’d look up 3aila because the author assumes that is the most commonly known, or the most basic.

In addition to that, each word is put into context in the form of 5 sentences, the kind one is likely to see in a contemporary Arabic newspaper.

Each word is categorized based on usage and weekly/monthly repetition. Each word gets a number, 1,2, or 3, (denoting that the word is used in only Fusha, in both dialects and Fusha, or just dialects), and a letter, D,M, or W (depending if it occurs daily, monthly, or weekly). One of the worst things about Hans Wehr is not knowing if a word is common or very archaic, but Synonyms solves that problem.

The Oxford Picture Dictionary English-Arabic

This is a book designed by two TESOL teachers in conjunction with the Oxford University Press, its actually designed as a tool for Arabs learning English after having moved to America. There are chapters on citizenship processes, American history, etc. Its very Norman Rockwell-y with the pictures of the happy white children getting candy from police officers. Nonetheless, its a great dictionary because instead of alphabetically arranging the words they’re grouped by type: vegetables and fruits, animals, professions etc.

Dictionary of Egyptian Colloquial Phrases

This is Muhammad el-Batal’s Dictionary of Egyptian Idioms. Basically what they did is collect Egyptian sayings from all classes and sectors of society (rich, poor, male, female, Upper Egypt, Cairene, Lower Egypt, etc) and recorded where and how, in what context they are used etc. They then did the same thing with English speakers, and consulted many English idiom dictionaries and just went through this huge collection of raw data and paired each idiom with its closest match in English. Pretty awesome.

A Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran

Like it says. Its pretty old, published originally in 1873.

The Top 1000 Words For Understanding Media Arabic

An amazing media dictionary. Its categorized into General, Politics, Elections, Military, Economics, Trade & Industry, Law & Order, and Disaster & Aid. Great book. I once wrote Elisabeth Kendall a fan letter because I liked this book so much. She wrote back and it made me happy.

A Student Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

My favorite grammar book. Its clear, concise, TONS of examples, the print is easy to read and it was published recently and designed for English-speaking college students.

The book I don’t like is:

Haywood’s grammar. Its convoluted, overly complicated (but more in depth than Schulz’s) and the printing is crap so the words are hard to read.

النحو الواضح

Clear Grammar

I got this in Yemen, its a really useful and clearly written Arabic grammar for Arab students. It gives the grammatical breakdown of the Arabic language starting at the most basic elements and working up to the more complicated, all with plenty of tables and examples.

Making Out In Arabic

Pardon our double entendre. I think this book is funny for three reasons. First because it advertises itself as the ‘Arabic as it’s really spoken’, but its in fact written in Modern Standard (FuSha), a language that has no native speakers anywhere on Earth. Making Out in Esperanto!

The other reason is that for whoever thought the Middle East was where you went to meet girls and pick up locals, well, if you’re an American girl trying to pick up guys you’re right. If you’re a guy, not so much. In fact you might want to avoid that big time.

The last reason this book is hilarious to me is this:


The Son of A Duck Is A Floater

A book of illustrated Arabic proverbs, many of them written in dialect. I love the author’s name, Primrose Arnander. It really needs an initial in the middle I feel like though.

English-Arabic/Arabic-English Translation

Two comparative texts translated, with a ton of notes following both texts. Another Grant and Cutler pickup.

Bilingual Poetry Collections

The following are all Arabic poetry books with English on the facing page.

His handwriting!!

Bilingual Literature

مشكة الأنوار

Al-Ghazali’s The Niche of Lights

Translated by David Buchman

I forget how I came across this.


“Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s philosophical explorations covered nearly the entire spectrum of twelfth-century beliefs. Beginning his career as a skeptic, he ended it as a scholar of mysticism and orthodoxy. The Niche of Lights, written near the end of his illustrious career, advances the philosophically important idea that reason can serve as a connection between the devout and God. Al-Ghazali argues that abstracting God from the world, as he believed theologians did, was not sufficient for understanding. Exploring the boundary between philosophy and theology, The Niche of Lights seeks to understand the role of reality in the perception of the spiritual.”

Haven’t read it.

Around The World In Eighty Days

Got this in Amman in a bookstore by the Abdali bus depot. A lot of Jordanian families like the idea of having English-speaking children. Its nice to not have to look up a word in the dictionary when you hit a stumbling block reading; its just on the opposite side of the page if you want it.


The Basic Turkish Redhouse Sözlük


The green one is mine from Istanbul and the red one is my mom’s from the 70s.

201 Turkish Verbs

The basic verb-chart book published by Barrons. This one is my mom’s copy from the 70s/80s. Cool thing about Turkish is the verbs are 100% regular.

J. Nemeth’s Turkish Grammar- Translated from the German by T. Halasi-Kun in 1961

This is an amazing work. In the 20s, Turkey switched from the modified Arabic script of Ottoman times to the Latin alphabet. The vast majority of Turkish grammar books therefore are 100% Latin script. This however has every word transliterated into its former Ottoman form, and devotes a lot more time and explanation of the Arabic and Persian elements in the Turkish language.

Underhill’s Turkish Grammar

This is one of the basic and fundamental grammars out there for Turkish. Very straightforward and very comprehensive.

Bogazici Turkish Grammar

This is the pocket grammar book of Bogazici University, the school I studied Turkish at in Istanbul.

Teach Yourself Turkish, G.L Lewis, 1953

This was my mother’s book, I really like these old “Teach-Yourself” series books.

Marlborough’s Turkish Self-Taught

1942, this is part of Marlborough’s Series on Oriental Languages. Also included in this series were, according to the back cover: Afrikaans, Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Esperanto (sweet.), Gujarati, Hindustani, Malay, Malayalam, Persian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhalese, and Tamil. That’s pretty awesome.

A Practical Course In Turkish

1980, basic grammar and conversations, gradually getting more complex.

Bogazici Textbooks

These were my “Turkish for Foreigners” course textbooks in Turkey.

Oxford English Picture Dictionary

The Oxford English Picture Dictionary is a great tool for studying vocab in groups. This was my mom’s copy.

Contemporary Turkish Short Stories

Like the title says. It has a really useful notes section following each story.

Büyük Nasreddin Hoca Fikralari

Nasreddin Hoca is a mythic figure in Near Eastern folklore, he is at once a fool and a wise man, and his stories are legendary across the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian world. This is a book of short (one paragraph to one page) stories.

When I was teaching in Yemen I would use Hoca stories, translated to English, while teaching English. My favorite Hoca story is like this: Hoca, his grandson, and his donkey are making the long walk home from town. The child is on the donkey and Hoca is walking alongside when they pass a group of people. He hears one say, “That poor old man! This child rides while he walks in this heat? My dear…” So the kid gets down and Hoca rides for a bit. A little later, they meet another group, and he again hears someone say, “That poor kid, made to walk while the grown-up rides!? My dear…” So he takes the kid and they both ride. Again, a group comes and he overhears, “That poor donkey!” So they both walk, and the donkey carries nothing. Later he hears someone laughing, and sees a group of men under a tree laughing at the two fools who chose to walk, even though they have a perfectly good donkey. The moral of the story is that you can’t please everybody all the time.


The Persian Dictionary to match my Hans Wehr.

Persian English Dictionary – 1876

Edward Henry Palmer‘s Persian 1876 Persian – English dictionary.

Persian Lessons for Foreigners

I got this and the one below on Westwood Blvd in LA, not far down from Massoud Valipour’s shop.

Simple Colloquial Persian


Persian Grammar

This I got at Grant and Cutler. John Mace is a wizard, he also writes really handy books about Arabic.


501 Hebrew Verbs

Verb charts!!

A Textbook of Israeli Hebrew

I found this book and the following two in a box by a dumpster at UW.

I haven’t really used them, but I’m planning on doing it when Hebrew studies kick in again.

Multiple Languages

This is the coolest section.

English-Turkish-Arabic Dictionary

This is one of the most awesome books I’ve found. I got it on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul and its a trilingual dictionary with a very interesting organization. It’s primarily an English-Arabic/English-Turkish dictionary, so for every English word there are several Arabic and several Turkish words. Each English word is numbered. In the back, there is a reference for Arabic-Eng/Turkish-Eng, each quoting the number of the English word, as opposed to the word itself.

Turkisch-Arabisch-Deutsche Worterbuch

Arabic-Turkish-German Dictionary I found at Trionfo in Jerusalem. It claims to be a dictionary of the three, I’m not convinced, the section claiming to be Turkish seems just to be transliterated Arabic. Hmm. Still, pretty cool.

A Dictionary of the Turkic Languages

This book made me decide to study Turkish. If you study one you get at least 8 for free, so to speak. Its an amazing linguistic undertaking, check the page pics to see how close the words often are.

Turkish-Uzbek Phrase Book/ Dictionary

A present from my friend Darrin, this is a book designed for Turks who want to learn Uzbek, but it obviously works both ways. Its helpful for students because it shows how Turkish morphs to Uzbek.

Gotthelf Bergsträsser’s Introduction to the Semitic Languages

This book is hardcore philology. An amazing linguistic breakdown of all the major Semitic languages, from the ancient to the current, with textual samples, transcription, translation and analysis.

Gotthelf Bergsträsser.

English-Urdu Pashto-Persian Conversation

Got this at Grant and Cutlers. Its a sourcebook of conversations, so one particular line translated into four languages.

Ibn Barun’s Hebrew Works on Hebrew Grammar and Lexicography by Pinchas Wechter

Published by the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia, this is a study of a Lexicon of Hebrew-Arabic cognates written by a Spanish Jew, Abu Ibrahim bin Barun. We don’t have the full manuscript, only fragments, but it’s an amazing collection, a goldmine for any student of both Hebrew and Arabic. Its all the freebies, the ones you know in one but not the other.

Judeo Arabic

Saadia Gaon’s Arabic-Hebrew Siddur

In Judeo Arabic and Hebrew, critical edition reprinted 1941 in Jerusalem.

Al Murshad al-Kafi By Tanḥum bin Yusif Yerushalmi


Oriental philologist and exegete of the thirteenth century. He was a scholar of great merit and was one of the last representatives of the rationalistic school of Biblical exegesis in the Orient; he is called by modern writers “the Ibn Ezra of the East.” He lived in Palestine, perhaps for a time in Egypt also, and had a son, Joseph

Tanḥum wrote “Al-Murshid al-Kafi,” a lexicon giving in alphabetical order the etymologies and significations of all the vocables found in Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah,” and of a great number of those found in the Mishnah. The main sources used are the “‘Aruk” and Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah. The author quotes Saadia, Ibn Janaḥ, Dunash, Moses ibn Ezra, and other prominent philologists.

Daughters of Yemen

An amazing project, this book is the oral poetry of the Yemenite Jewish women who came to Israel. Much of it is in Judeo-Arabic, some is in Hebrew, some is in Muslim Yemeni dialect. My only beef with this book is that it uses English transliteration as opposed to Hebrew or Arabic letters. But at the same time had this not been written, this poetry would be lost to the ages in a generation, it was not recorded and it was not passed down, so Caspi’s book really is a document of an amazing body of poetry.

Ahavat Teiman (Love of Yemen)

Basically the same as above, Yemenite Jewish women’s poetry, but this time written in the Hebrew characters.

The Arabic Commentary of Soloman Ben Yeruham the Karaite on the Book of Psalms By Lawrence Marwick

Pretty self-explanatory title. Got this at Henry Hollander’s bookstore in San Francisco.  Published by the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, may it rest in peace.

More later when I have time.

5 Responses to “Cool books on languages”

  1. Josh – you left out Russian. Does that count nowadays as a Middle Eastern language?

    Where are you? I just found your blog through facebook and i’m loving the pictures. Especially the ones of dead animals. I had a few of those myself, but then the government took them away.

    I’m coming to Israel for a bunch of months in January. I might go to this commune near Be’er Sheva (well, relatively – 60 kilometers or so) and be a goat herder. Any experience in that field? Anyway, if you’ll still be there, we should meet up.

    I too have a thing for languages. Only, Slavic. But hey, it’s close enough, right?

  2. Great Website Josh.
    I’m a storyteller from England and will be in Israel/Palestine in May for the Healing Words Tour and Festival in The Kibutz Harduf area of Galilee.
    My Hebrew and Arabic are developing, but will i be able to tell s
    a story in either language with out the assistance of translators….? Ani lo yodea….Ma a’arif .
    But this website is an inspiration

  3. I see you have my favorite Hebrew textbook, Haim Rosen really put together a fantastic book! I used it thirty years ago and have given several copies out as gifts to new students. It will give you a lot of detailed, but well explained , grammar and useful vocabulary. I love this book. I just wish more languages had such a book.

  4. Nice piece of information – Have you come across rare book – HEBREW is GREEK By Joseph Yahuda. Interesting read.

  5. You left out Greek. Very much Middle Eastern despite the continent it’s located.

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