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Romanization of Arabic

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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 script. Examples of such problems are the symbols for Arabic phonemes that do not exist in English or other European languages; the means of representing the Arabic definite article, which is always spelled the same way in written Arabic but has numerous pronunciations in the spoken language depending on context; and the representation of short vowels (usually i u or e o, accounting for variations such as Muslim/Moslem or Mohammed/Muhammad/Mohamed).


  • Method 1
  • Romanization standards and systems 2
    • Comparison table 2.1
  • Romanization issues 3
    • Vowels 3.1
    • Transliteration vs. transcription 3.2
  • Examples 4
  • Arabic alphabet and nationalism 5
    • Lebanon 5.1
    • Egypt 5.2
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Romanization is often termed "transliteration", but this is not technically correct. Transliteration is the direct representation of foreign letters using Latin symbols, while most systems for romanizing Arabic are actually transcription systems, which represent the sound of the language. As an example, the above rendering munāẓaratu l-ḥurūfi l-ʻarabīyah of the Arabic: مناظرة الحروف العربية‎ is a transcription, indicating the pronunciation; an example transliteration would be mnaẓrḧ alḥrwf alʻrbyḧ.

Romanization standards and systems

Principal standards and systems are:

  • Hans Wehr, which is used internationally in scientific publications by Arabists.
  • DGM ( [2]
  • UNGEGN (1972): United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, or "Variant A of the Amended Beirut System".[3]
    • IGN System 1973 or "Variant B of the Amended Beirut System", that conforms to the French orthography and is preferred to the Variant A in French-speaking countries as in Maghreb and Lebanon.[3][4]
  • ISO 233 (1984).
    • ISO 233-2 (1993). Simplified transliteration.
  • BGN/PCGN romanization (1956).[5]
  • BS 4280 (1968): Developed by the British Standards Institution.[6]
  • ArabTeX (since 1992): "has been modelled closely after the transliteration standards ISO/R 233 and DIN 31635".
  • Buckwalter Transliteration (1990s): developed at ALPNET by Tim Buckwalter;[2] doesn't require unusual diacritics.[7]
  • Arabic chat alphabet: not a system; listed here merely for completeness. In some situations, such as online communication, users need a way to enter Arabic text only with the keys immediately available on a keyboard. As an ad hoc solution, such letters can be replaced with Arabic numerals of similar appearance.

Comparison table

Letter Unicode Name IPA ALA-LC Wehr DIN UNGEGN ISO -2 BW ArabTeX chat
ء 0621 hamzah ʔ ʼ ʾ ʼ ˈˌ ' A ' 2
ا 0627 alif ā ʾ aa ' A a/e/é
ب 0628 ʼ b b
ت 062A ʼ t t
ث 062B thāʼ θ th th v _t s/th
ج 062C jīm d͡ʒ~ɡ~ʒ j ǧ j ǧ j j ^g j/g/dj
ح 062D ḥāʼ ħ H .h 7
خ 062E khāʼ x kh kh x x _h kh/7'/5
د 062F dāl d d
ذ 0630 dhāl ð dh dh đ * _d z/dh/th
ر 0631 ʼ r r
ز 0632 zayn/zāy z z
س 0633 sīn s s
ش 0634 shīn ʃ sh š sh š $ ^s sh/ch
ص 0635 ṣād ş S .s s/9
ض 0636 ḍād D .d d/9'
ط 0637 ṭāʼ ţ T .t t/6
ظ 0638 ẓāʼ ðˤ~ đ̣ Z .z z/dh/6'
ع 0639 ʻayn ʕ ʻ ʿ ʻ ʿ ř E ` 3
غ 063A ghayn ɣ gh ġ gh ġ g g .g gh/3'
ف 0641 ʼ f f
ق 0642 qāf q q 2/g/q/8
ك 0643 kāf k k
ل 0644 lām l l
م 0645 mīm m m
ن 0646 nūn n n
ه 0647 ʼ h h
و 0648 wāw w, w; ū w w; ū w; o w w; U w; o; ou/u/oo
ي 064A ʼ j, y; ī y y; ī y; e y y; I y; i/ee; ei/ai
آ 0622 alif maddah ʔaː ā, ʼā ʾā ā ʾâ 'aa | 'A 2a/aa
ة 0629 ʼ marbūṭah a, at h; t —; t h; t ŧ p T a/e(h); et/at
ى 0649 alif maqṣūrah á ā y à Y _A a
ال alif lām (var.) al- ʾal al-; ál- Al- al- el
  • ^1 Hans Wehr transliteration does not capitalize the first letter at the beginning of sentences nor in proper names.
  • ^2 The chat table is only a demonstration and is based on the spoken varieties which vary considerably from Literary Arabic on which the IPA table and the rest of the transliterations are based.
  • ^3 Review hamzah for its various forms.
  • ^4 The original standard symbols for these schemes for transliterating hamzah and ʻayn is by Modifier letter apostropheʼ〉 and Modifier letter turned commaʻ〉, respectively. However, there is a common practice to instead use Right single quotation mark〉 and Left single quotation mark 〈〉, respectively. The glottal stop (hamzah) in these romanizations isn't written word-initially.
  • ^5 Fāʼ and qāf are traditionally written in Northwestern Africa as ڢ and ڧـ ـڧـ ـٯ, respectively, while the latter's dot is only added initially or medially.
  • ^6 In Egypt, Sudan, and sometimes in other regions, the standard form for final-yāʼ is only ى (without dots) in handwriting and print, for both final /-iː/ and final /-aː/. ى for the latter pronunciation, is called ألف لينة alif layyinah , 'flexible alif'.
  • ^7 The sun and moon letters and hamzat waṣl pronunciation rules apply, although it is acceptable to ignore them.

Romanization issues

Any romanization 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. As a result, a pure transliteration, e.g., rendering قطر as qṭr, is meaningless to an untrained reader. For this reason, transcriptions are generally used that add vowels, e.g. qaṭar. However, unvocalized systems match exactly to written Arabic, unlike vocalized systems such as Arabic chat, which some claim detracts from one's ability to spell.[8]

Transliteration vs. transcription

Most uses of romanization call for transcription rather than transliteration: Instead of transliterating each written letter, they try to reproduce the sound of the words according to the orthography rules of the target language: Qaṭar. This applies equally to scientific and popular applications. A pure transliteration, for example, would need to omit vowels (e.g. qṭr ), making the result difficult to interpret except for a subset of trained readers fluent in Arabic. Even if vowels are added, a transliteration system would still need to distinguish between multiple ways of spelling the same sound in the Arabic script, e.g. alif  ا vs. alif maqṣūrah ى for the sound /aː/ ā, and the six different ways (ء إ أ آ ؤ ئ) of writing the glottal stop (hamza, usually transcribed ʼ ). This sort of detail is unneeded and needlessly confusing, except in a very few situations (e.g., typesetting text in the Arabic script).

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

  • Some transliterations ignore assimilation of the definite article al- before the "sun letters", and may be easily misread by non-Arabic speakers. For instance, "the light" النور an-nūr would be more literally transliterated along the lines of alnūr. In the transcription an-nūr, a hyphen is added and the unpronounced /l/ removed for the convenience of the uninformed non-Arabic speaker, who would otherwise pronounce an /l/, perhaps not understanding that /n/ in nūr is geminated. Alternatively, if the shaddah is not transliterated (since it is strictly not a letter), a strictly literal transliteration would be alnūr, which presents similar problems for the uninformed non-Arabic speaker.
  • A transliteration should render the "closed tāʼ " (tāʼ marbūṭah, ة) faithfully. Many transcriptions render the sound /a/ as a or ah and t when it denotes /at/.
    • ISO 233 has a unique symbol, .
  • "Restricted alif" (alif maqṣūrah, ى) should be transliterated with an acute accent, á, differentiating it from regular alif ا, but it is transcribed in many schemes like alif, ā, when it stands for /aː/.
  • Nunation: what is true elsewhere is also true for nunation: transliteration renders what is seen, transcription what is heard, when in the Arabic script, it is written with diacritics, not by letters, or omitted.

A transcription may reflect the language as spoken, typically rendering names, for example, by the people of Baghdad (Baghdad Arabic), or the official standard (Literary Arabic) as spoken by a preacher in the mosque or a TV newsreader. 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 /ʕumar xajjaːm/, (unvocalized ʿmr ḫyām, vocalized ʻUmar Khayyām).

A transliteration is ideally fully reversible: a machine should be able to transliterate it back into Arabic. 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 such that digraphs for a single phoneme (such as dh gh kh sh th rather than ḏ ġ ḫ š ṯ ) may be confused with two adjacent consonants—but this problem is resolved in the ALA-LC romanization system, where the prime symbol ʹ is used to separate two consonants when they do not form a digraph;[9] for example: أَكْرَمَتْها akramatʹhā ('she honored her'), in which the t and h are two distinct consonantal sounds.
  • Symbols representing phonemes may be considered too similar (e.g., ` and ' or ʿ and ʾ for ع ʻayn and hamzah);
  • 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 who is familiar with the sounds of Arabic but 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 a reader is not familiar with Arabic pronunciation.


Examples in Literary Arabic:

Arabic أمجد كان له قصر إلى المملكة المغربية
Arabic with diacritics
(normally omitted)
أَمْجَد كَانَ لَهُ قَصْر إِلَى الْمَمْلَكَة الْمَغْرِبِيَّة
IPA /ʔamdʒad kaːna lahu qasˤr/ /ʔila l mamlaka al maɣribijja/
DIN 31635 ʾAmǧad kāna lahu qaṣr ʾIlā l-mamlakah al-Maġribiyyah
Hans Wehr amjad kān lah qaṣr ilā l-mamlaka al-maḡribīya
ALA-LC Amjad kāna lahu qaṣr Ilá al-mamlakah al-Maghribīyah
UNGEGN Amjad kana lahu qaşr Ily al-mamlakah al-maghribiyyah
BATR amjad kaana lahu qaSr ilaaa almamlakat' almagribiyyat'
ArabTeX am^gad kAna lahu il_A almamlakaT alma.gribiyyaT
Arabeasy Amjad kan lh 8a9r ela almamlaka alma'3rebiya
Malay 'Amjad kana lahu qashr 'Ilal-mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah
English Amjad had a palace To the Moroccan Kingdom

Arabic alphabet and nationalism

There have been many instances of national movements to convert Arabic script into Latin script or to romanize the language.


A Beirut newspaper La Syrie pushed for the change from Arabic script to Latin script in 1922. The major head of this movement was Louis Massignon, a French Orientalist, who brought his concern before the Arabic Language Academy in Damascus in 1928. Massignon’s attempt at romanization failed as the Academy and population viewed the proposal as an attempt from the Western world to take over their country. Sa’id Afghani, a member of the Academy, asserted that the movement to romanize the script was a Zionist plan to dominate Lebanon.[10][11]


After the period of colonialism in Egypt, Egyptians were looking for a way to reclaim and reemphasize Egyptian culture. As a result, some Egyptians pushed for an Egyptianization of the Arabic language in which the formal Arabic and the colloquial Arabic would be combined into one language and the Latin alphabet would be used.[10][11] There was also the idea of finding a way to use Hieroglyphics instead of the Latin Alphabet.[10][11] A scholar, Salama Musa, agreed with the idea of applying a Latin alphabet to Arabic, as he believed that would allow Egypt to have a closer relationship with the West. He also believed that Latin script was key to the success of Egypt as it would allow for more advances in science and technology. This change in script, he believed, would solve the problems inherent with Arabic, such as a lack of written vowels and difficulties writing foreign words.[10][11][12] Ahmad Lutfi As Sayid and Muhammad Azmi, two Egyptian intellectuals, agreed with Musa and supported the push for romanization.[10][11] The idea that romanization was necessary for modernization and growth in Egypt continued with Abd Al Aziz Fahmi in 1944. He was the chairman for the Writing and Grammar Committee for the Arabic Language Academy of Cairo.[10][11] He believed and desired to implement romanization in a way that allowed words and spellings to remain somewhat familiar to the Egyptian people. However, this effort failed as the Egyptian people felt a strong cultural tie to the Arabic alphabet, particularly the older generation.[10][11]

See also


  1. ^ "Arabic romanization table" (PDF). The Library of Congress. 
  2. ^  
  3. ^ a b "Arabic" (PDF). UNGEGN. 
  4. ^ "Systèmes français de romanisation" (PDF). UNGEGN. 2009. 
  5. ^ "Romanization system for Arabic. BGN/PCGN 1956 System" (PDF). 
  6. ^ "Standards, Training, Testing, Assessment and Certification | BSI Group". Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  7. ^ "Open Xerox: arabic-morphology Service Home Page". 2010-11-22. Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  8. ^ "Arabizi sparks concern among educators". 2013-05-09. Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  9. ^ "Arabic" (PDF). ALA-LC Romanization Tables. Library of Congress. p. 9. Retrieved 2013-06-14. 21. The prime (ʹ) is used: (a) To separate two letters representing two distinct consonantal sounds, when the combination might otherwise be read as a digraph. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Shrivtiel, Shraybom (1998). The Question of Romanisation of the Script and The Emergence of Nationalism in the Middle East. Mediterranean Language Review. pp. 179–196. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g History of Arabic Writing
  12. ^ Shrivtiel, p. 188

External links

  • Comparative table of DIN 31635, ISO 233, ISO/R 233, UN, ALA-LC, and Encyclopædia of Islam (not normative)
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