Romanization of Arabic

Different approaches and methods for the romanization of Arabic exist. They vary in the way that they address the inherent problems of rendering written and spoken Arabic in the Latin alphabet; they also use different symbols for Arabic phonemes that do not exist in English or other European languages.

Romanization issues

Any transliteration system has to make a number of decisions which are dependent on its intended field of application. One basic problem is that written Arabic is normally unvocalized, i.e. many of the vowels are not written out, and must be supplied by a reader familiar with the language. Hence unvocalized Arabic writing does not give a reader unfamiliar with the language sufficient information for accurate pronunciation. An exact equivalent of قطر would be , which is meaningless to an untrained reader. A "full transliteration" adds information not in the text, which has to be supplied by a speaker of Arabic, . Usually, newspapers and popular books do not use a transliteration, but a transcription: Instead of transliterating each written letter, they try to reproduce the sound of the words according to the orthography rules of the target language: Qatar.

Most issues related to the romanization of Arabic are about transliterating vs. transcribing – others, about what should be romanized:

  • transliteration ignores assimilation (sandhi) of the article before the "sun letters", and may be easily misread by non-Arabs. For instance an-nur (or an-nuur, or an-noor) would be more correctly transliterated along the lines of alnur. In the transcription an-nur, a hyphen is added and the unpronounced 'l' removed for the convenience of the uninformed non-Arab reader, who would otherwise pronounce an 'l', probably not understand the word to be nur, pronounce only one 'n', and be confused by the role of the double 'n'. Alternatively, if the shadda is not transliterated (since it is strictly not a letter), a hypercorrect transliteration would be alnur, which presents similar problems for the uninformed non-Arab reader.
  • a transliteration must render the "closed tā" (ta marbuta ة) faithfully, a transcription must render the sound ("a" like any other "a" or "t" like any other "at" — or in a vocalized text nothing vs. t)
  • "shortened alif" (ى) must be transliterated with a special symbol, but is transcribed like standing alif, when it stands for a long a (ā)
  • Nunation: what is true elsewhere is also true for nunation: transliteration renders what you see, transcription what you hear.

A transcription may reflect the language as spoken, for example, by the people of Baghdad, or the official standard as spoken by a preacher in the mosque or a TV news reader. A transcription is free to add phonological (such as vowels) or morphological (such as word boundaries) information. Transcriptions will also vary depending on the writing conventions of the target language; compare English Omar Khayyam with German Omar Chajjam, both for عمر خيام (unvocalized , vocalized ).

A transliteration is ideally fully reversible: a machine must be able to transliterate it into Arabic and back. A transliteration can be considered as flawed for any one of the following reasons:

  • A "loose" transliteration is ambiguous, rendering several Arabic phonemes with an identical transliteration, or digraphs for a single phoneme (such as sh) may be confused with two adjacent phonemes;
  • Symbols representing phonemes may be considered too similar (e.g., ` and ' or ʿ and ʾ for ayin and hamza);
  • ASCII transliterations using capital letters to disambiguate phonemes are easy to type but may be considered unaesthetic.

A fully accurate transcription may not be necessary for native Arabic speakers as they would be able to pronounce names and sentences correctly anyway, but it can be very useful for those not fully familiar with spoken Arabic and who are familiar with the Roman alphabet. An accurate transliteration serves as a valuable stepping stone for learning, pronouncing correctly, and distinguishing phonemes. It is a useful tool for anyone familiar with the sounds of Arabic but who are not fully conversant in the language.

One criticism is that a fully accurate system would require special learning that most do not have to actually pronounce names correctly, and that with a lack of a universal Romanization system they will not be pronounced correctly by non-native speakers anyway. The precision will be lost if special characters are not replicated and if someone is not familiar with Arabic pronunciation.

Transliteration standards

  • Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (1936): Adopted by the International Convention of Orientalist Scholars in Rome. It is the basis for the very influential Hans Wehr dictionary (ISBN 0-87950-003-4).
  • ISO/R 233 (1961). Replaced by ISO 233 in 1984 but still encountered.
  • BS 4280 (1968): Developed by the British Standards Institute.
  • SATTS: One-to-one mapping to Latin Morse equivalents.
  • UNGEGN (1972):
  • DIN-31635 (1982): Developed by the Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardization).
  • ISO 233 (1984).
  • Qalam (1985): A system that focuses upon preserving the spelling, rather than the pronunciation, and uses mixed case.
  • ArabTeX (since 1992) its "native" input is 7-bit ASCII: "has been modelled closely after the transliteration standards ISO/R 233 and DIN 31635"
  • ISO 233-2(1993). Simplified transliteration.
  • Buckwalter Transliteration (1990s): Developed at Xerox by Tim Buckwalter ; doesn't require unusual diacritics.
  • Bikdash Transliteration: A system which is a compromise between Qalam and Buckwalter Transilterations. It represents consonants with one letter and possibly the single quotation mark as a modifier, and uses one or several latin vowels to represent short and long Arabic vowels. It strives for minimality as well as phonetic expressiveness. It does not distinguish between the different shapes of the hamza since it assumes that a software implementation can resolve the differences through the standard rules of spelling of Arabic
  • ALA-LC (1997).
  • SAS: Spanish Arabists School (José Antonio Conde and others, early 19th century onwards).

A table comparing romanizations using DIN 31635, ISO 233, ISO/R 233, UN, ALA-LC, and Encyclopaedia of Islam systems is available here:

Comparison table

Letter Unicode Name SATTS UNGEGN ALA-LC DIN ISO ISO/R Qalam SAS SM Buckwalter IPA BATR ArabTeX
0621 hamza E ʼ, — —, ’ ʾ ˈ, ˌ —, ’ ' ʾ ' ' /ʔ/ e '
0627 ʼalif A ā ʾ ā aa a, i, u; ā aa A /a(ː)/ aa or A a
0628 bāʼ B b b b b b b /b/ b b
062A tāʼ T t t t t t t /t/ t t
062B ṯāʼ C th th ç v /θ/ c _t
062C ǧīm, jīm, gīm J j ǧ j ŷ j j /ʤ/ / /g/ j ^g
062D ḥāʼ H H H /ħ/ H .h
062E ḫāʼ O kh kh j x x /x/ K _h
062F dāl D d d d d d d /d/ d d
0630 ḏāl Z dh dh đ * /ð/ z' _d
0631 rāʼ R r r r r r r /r/ r r
0632 zāy ; z z z z z z /z/ z z
0633 sīn S s s s s s s /s/ s s
0634 šīn : sh š sh š š $ /ʃ/ x ^s
0635 ṣād X ş S S /sˁ/ S .s
0636 ḍād V D D /dˁ/ D .d
0637 ṭāʼ U ţ T T /tˁ/ T .t
0638 ẓāʼ Y Z đ̣ Z /ðˁ/ Z .z
0639 ʻayn ` ʻ ʿ ` ʿ ř E /ʕ/ E `
063A ġayn G gh ġ gh g ğ g /ɣ/ g .g
0641 fāʼ F f f f f f f /f/ f f
0642 qāf Q q q q q q q /q/ q q
0643 kāf K k k k k k k /k/ k k
0644 lām L l l l l l l /l/ l l
0645 mīm M m m m m m m /m/ m m
0646 nūn N n n n n n n /n/ n n
0647 hāʼ ~ h h h h h h /h/ h h
0648 wāw W w w w w; ū w; o w /w/, /uː/ w or uu w
064A yāʼ I y y y y; ī y; e y /j/, /iː/ y or ii y
0622 ʼalif madda AEA ā ā, ʼā ʾā ʾâ ā, ʾā ā 'aa | /ʔaː/ eaa 'A
0629 tāʼ marbūṭa @ h, t h, t h, t h, t t; — ŧ p /a/, /at/ t' T
0649 ʼalif maqṣūra / y ā ae à à Y /aː/ aaa _A
FEFB lām ʼalif LA laʾ la lʾ; lā laa /lː/ laa lA
ال ʼalif lām AL al- al- ʾˈal al- al al- al-; ál- var. Al- al-


Online communication is sometimes restricted to an ASCII environment in which not only the Arabic letters themselves but also Roman characters with diacritics are unavailable. Even when Arabic letters and Roman characters with diacritics are available, they are often difficult to type. This problem is faced by most speakers of languages that use non-Roman alphabets, or heavily modified ones. An ad hoc solution consists of using Arabic numerals which mirror or resemble the relevant Arabic letters in shape. They appear as follows:

3 represents the Arabic letter ع .

5 or 7' represent the Arabic letter خ .

6 represents the Arabic letter ط .

6' represents the Arabic letter ظ .

7 represents the Arabic letter ح .

8 represents the Arabic letter ق .

9 represents the Arabic letter ص .

9' represents the Arabic letter ض .

2 is sometimes used to represent the أ when it is in the middle of a word

See also

External links

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