August 15, 2008

Arabic Transliteration… So many difficulties!

Filed under: Islamic Terms — abuaisha @ 8:15 am

As-Salāmu `Alaykum wa Raħmatullāhi wa Barakātuhu

or as I sometimes write:

As-Salaamu `Alaykum wa Rahmatullaahi wa Barakaatuhu

or maybe even

Assalamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh

All of them are intelligible as being transliterations of ‘السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته’

It makes one wonder.. If there is only 1 way of spelling things in Arabic, then why are there so many ways to do so in Latin script (English)?

Well, the problem is that English is simply not the same as Arabic, Arabic has sounds that English does not have, and it has letters which have no equal in English.

Let me attempt to explain this.

When transliterating from another language, one would see that most languages contain many common sounds. For example almost every language I could think of has the sound ‘B’ and a letter (or letters) to write it. To use Russian as an example, one would write Б which when transliterated into English would simply become B. To look at Greek however there is no letter used for the sound ‘b’ rather 2 letters are placed together to represent it – M and P (M and Π in Greek) so the sound B is written as ‘ΜΠ’. When transliterating this one would simply still use ‘B’ as transliteration (as opposed to transcription) represents the sound and not the letters. If one were transcribing letter for letter they might write MP however this is obscure for the average person and requires a knowledge of Greek language to be able to comprehend it.

It is this distinction between transliterating and transcribing that causes many of the issues of Arabic transliteration which we commonly see. Many people tend to use a mix of both systems which ends up really only being intelligible to an advanced reader of Arabic, who doesn’t need to have a transliteration in the first place.

To take it further – As we mentioned Latin script lacks many of the sounds and cognate letters which Arabic has. Other languages however also contain such sounds and letters, so why is Arabic the one which causes the most hassles? Let’s use Russian again as an example to compare to. Russian contains the letter ‘Ж’ this is represented in the IPA as /ʒ/ (this is also known as the letter ‘ezh’). The sound exists in English, however there is no set letter to signify it. The d is found in the word ‘pleasure’. As there is no 1 letter available in English, what we find is that a letter H is added to a Z to act as a modifier, so we end up with ZH to transliterate Ж. The letter H is commonly used as a modifier, as in SH, CH, TH etc. This perhaps stems from its use in Classical Latin to aspirate a letter.

So what does this have to do with Arabic? Well, when we find Arabic letters with no Latin equivalent, this is what is usually done, a H is added to another letter to form a diagraph representing that sound. For example, the Arabic letter ذ is usually transliterated in the more orthodox transliterations as ‘dh’ probably stemming from the common transliteration from the similar sounding Greek letter Δ (Dhelta). So the word ذِكر would be written as ‘dhikr’. This works well and fine, until we realise that there are 2 other letters which are commonly transliterated with ‘dh’ of them are – ض and ظ. These 2 letters are both used only in Arabic, so there are no well known ways of transliterating them, so we must invent a new way to write them with Latin script.

If we follow the system of finding its common Latin equivalent and adding a H to it, we are in a mess, as the letter ظ is the pharangealised version of ذ so we cannot write now dh+h (dhh) as it becomes unnatural having so many h’s in a word, let alone if that letter were followed by a ه (h), then we would see ‘dhhh’!

So we then see that either we find an alternate way of writing ظ or we find another way of writing ذ. Some of the common alternatives are using đ, ð or δ all of which are used to write this sound in other scripts. One of the problems though is that they are not immediately recognisable, and adding a h after them seems extremely obscure (ðh ?), so one of the alternatives found being used is to underline the letter, so đ for example would be used for ذ, and đ for ظ. Following this scheme, ض then would become d.
One of the benefits of abandoning the use an added h in these cases is that its lessens the likelihood of encountering double h’s in words, for example a common sample of this seen is when transliterating the word مَذهَب, it is seen as madhhab. To make it clearer some break up the h’s with symbols such as – or ‘ (madh’hab, madh-hab) however this too causes issues especially as the ‘ symbol is used to transliterate the letter ء by almost all systems!

As you can see.. This is just a small sample of a few letters and why Arabic is just so hard to transliterate well into a well organised, sensical and aesthetic way. There are many complexities to take into account. Before I even think about diving into the deep end and tackling them, I will supply a list of commonly used ways to transliterate each Arabic letter, sorting them from most obscure to most common. This might help in demonstrating how certain letters are the reasons for all of the difficulties in transliteration.

(To be continued Inshaa’Allaah)


ب b


ثTH θ t th th

The letter Theta θ is taken from Greek as well as the IPA. Whilst it is accurate, it is also not well known and as such is too obscure to properly use.


حch x hh H h ħ

The letter ħ is used in both Maltese as well as the IPA. If one wants to avoid dots or underlining, it is an excellent choice due to its academic acceptance and precedence in Maltese. X is used in Somali, but is not well known and hence too obscure for wide use, as well as the fact that it is better known as a transliteration of the Arabic latter خ.  Ch is the common transliteration of the Hebrew letter Chet ח which is equivalent to the Arabic letter ح although it is also pronounced as Kh in modern Israeli pronunciation, so as such is not suitable, as well as obscure to most Arabic speakers who might confuse ch with the French transliteration of ش.

خKH x kh kh

The letter x is used in Chechen, Greek as well as the IPA, it is however still rather obscure. X is also used in Somali to represent the letter ح, in Oromo for t’, Latin/English for ks as well as Maltese and Catalan for sh. As such it is too ambiguous too take on any serious role in Arabic transliteration.


ذDH z dh dh ð đ

ð is used in the IPA as well as scandinavian languages and resembles the Greek letter dhelta. However it is still rather unknown and obscure looking. As such đ is a good replacement in that it resembles that letter as is only ambiguous to speakers of Vietnamese who use it for the letter d. Z should be completely avoided as it is a mispronunciation common amongst some Arabic speakers as well as most Turkish, Central Asians and Sub-continent speakers.




شSH ch š sh sh

š is common to eastern Europeans to represent sh, it is also used in the official Saudi French translation of the Qur’an, which means it is widely known, however it is still seemingly obscure and does not have any other cognate in Arabic transliteration eg. č ž

صS ş s s

s (or with a dot below) is by far the most commonly used and widely understood. ş should be avoided as it is used in Turkish to represent sh.

ضZ DH D đ dh dh d

Z should be avoided as it is a mispronunciation. dh and d are the most common and widely understood.

طT th ţ t t

ظDH DH Z Z D D TH TH th th dh dh đ

Whilst Z is perhaps the most commonly used, it is based upon a mispronunciation of the letter (as a Z). đ is perhaps the most accurate if one uses đ for ذ as the 2 are related (it is the pharyngealised version of  ذ)

عAA ^ ‘ c ³ ` ʢ ʽ ʿ ˤ ˁ `
3 is used, however it is very informal, part of a ‘chat alphabet’ more than any serious transliteration scheme. c is used in Somali however seems obscure, even though ʿ (superscript c) is used by linguists regularly for the `Ayn (reverse glottal stop). ˤ is becoming common and is good to be used, however ` being easily accesible on keyboards is perhaps the easiest and most commonly used and hence understood.

غGH ĝ ġ g gh gh


قK k q


ل l





when preceded by an Aai ay
when preceded by an Iie ē ee ii i î í ī
when preceded by a Uui uy

ى when preceded by an I ie ē ii i ĩ í î ee ī
when preceded by an AA ã â aa ā

ةH T ʰ t/h

ء – ‘

َ (fatħa)a

ِ (kasrah)i

ُ (dammah)u


1 Comment »

  1. I would usually transliterate arabic words such as InshaAllah, MashaAllah. But when it comes to writing to Malays, they are more familiar writing those as InsyaAllah and MasyaAllah. There had been a few times when I write InshaAllah, Malays make it such a big deal saying that InsyaAllah is more correct.

    Comment by Adib — May 12, 2009 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

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