Romanization of Arabic
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Romanization of Arabic

The romanization of Arabic refers to the standard norms for rendering written and spoken Arabic in the Latin script in one of various systematic ways. Romanized Arabic is used for a number of different purposes, among them transcription of names and titles, cataloging Arabic language works, language education when used instead of or alongside the Arabic script, and representation of the language in scientific publications by linguists. These formal systems, which often make use of diacritics and non-standard Latin characters and are used in academic settings or for the benefit of non-speakers, contrast with informal means of written communication used by speakers such as the Latin-based Arabic chat alphabet.

Different systems and strategies have been developed to address the inherent problems of rendering various Arabic varieties 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).


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 munaratu l-?ur?fi l-?arab?yah of the Arabic:   ?‎ is a transcription, indicating the pronunciation; an example transliteration would be mna?r? al?rwf al?rby?.

Romanization standards and systems

Principal standards and systems are:

Mixed digraphic and diacritical

  • BGN/PCGN romanization (1956).[1]
  • UNGEGN (1972). United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, or "Variant A of the Amended Beirut System". Adopted from BGN/PCGN.[2][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.[2][4]
    • ADEGN romanization (2007) is different from UNGEGN in two ways: (1) ? is d͟h instead of z?; (2) the cedilla is replaced by a sub-macron (_) in all the characters with the cedilla.[2]
  • ALA-LC (first published 1991), from the American Library Association and the Library of Congress.[5] This romanization is close to the romanization of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft and Hans Wehr, which is used internationally in scientific publications by Arabists.
    • IJMES, used by International Journal of Middle East Studies, very similar to ALA-LC.[6]
    • EI, Encyclopaedia of Islam (1st ed., 1913-1938; 2nd ed., 1960-2005).[7]

Fully diacritical


Comparison table

Letter Unicode Name IPA BGN/
UNGEGN ALA-LC EI Wehr1 EALL BS DIN ISO ArabTeX Arabizi2[15][16][17]
?3 0621 hamzah ? '4 ? '4 ? '4 ? '? ' 2
? 0627 alif a: ? ? A a/e/é
? 0628 b?' b b
? 062A t?' t t
? 062B th?' ? th(t͟h)5 ? _t s/th/t
? 062C j?m d~?~? j dj(d͟j)5 j6 ? ^g j/g/dj
? 062D ' ? ?7 ? .h 7/h
? 062E kh?' x kh(k͟h)5 ?6 x ? ? ? _h kh/7'/5
? 062F d?l d d
? 0630 dh?l ð dh(d͟h)5 ? _d z/dh/th/d
? 0631 r?' r r
? 0632 zayn/z?y z z
? 0633 s?n s s
? 0634 sh?n ? sh(s͟h)5 ? ^s sh/ch/$
? 0635 d s? ?7 ? .s s/9
? 0636 d d? ?7 ? .d d/9'/D
? 0637 ' t? ?7 ? .t t/6/T
? 0638 ' ð?~z? z?7 ? /?11 ? .z z/dh/6'/th
? 0639 ?ayn ? ?4 ? ?4 ? ` 3
? 063A ghayn ? gh(g͟h)5 ?6 ? ? ? .g gh/3'/8
?8 0641 f?' f f
?8 0642 q?f q q 2/g/q/8/9
? 0643 k?f k k
? 0644 l?m l l
? 0645 m?m m m
? 0646 n?n n n
? 0647 h?' h h
? 0648 w?w w, u: w; ? w; U w/ou/oo/u/o
?9 064A y?' j, i: y; ? y; I y/i/ee/ei/ai
? 0622 alif maddah ?a: ?, '? ?? ?â 'A 2a/aa
? 0629 t?' marbah a, at h; t --; t h; t ? T a/e(h); et/at
06270644 alif l?m (var.) al-10 ?al al- el/al
?9 0649 alif maqrah a: á ? ? _A a
064E fat?ah a a a/e/é
0650 kasrah i i i/e/é
064F ?ammah u u ou/o/u
064E0627 fat?ah alif a: ? a' A/aa a
0650064A kasrah y?' i: ? iy I/iy i/ee
064F0648 ?ammah w?w u: ? uw U/uw ou/oo/u
064E064A fat?ah y?' aj ay ay/ai/ey/ei
064E0648 fat?ah w?w aw aw aw/aou
064B fat?at?n an an an á aN an
064D kasrat?n in in in í iN in/en
064C ?ammat?n un un un ú uN oun/on/oon/un
  • ^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 Neither standard defines which code point to use for hamzah and ?ayn. Appropriate Unicode points would be modifier letter apostrophe'⟩ and modifier letter turned comma?⟩ (for the UNGEGN and BGN/PCGN) or modifier letter reversed comma?⟩ (for the Wehr and Survey of Egypt System (SES)), all of which Unicode defines as letters. Often right and left single quotation marks'⟩, ⟨'⟩ are used instead, but Unicode defines those as punctuation marks, and they can cause compatibility issues. The glottal stop (hamzah) in these romanizations isn't written word-initially.
  • ^5 In Encyclopaedia of Islam digraphs are underlined, that is t͟h, d͟j, k͟h, d͟h, s͟h, g͟h. In BGN/PCGN on the contrary the sequences , , ?, ? may be romanized with middle dot as t·h, k·h, d·h, s·h respectively; the letter g is not used by itself in BGN/PCGN, so no confusion between gh and g+h is possible.
  • ^6 In the original German edition of his dictionary (1952) Wehr used ?, ?, ? for j, ?, ? respectively (that is all the letters used are equal to DMG/DIN 31635). The variant presented in the table is from the English translation of the dictionary (1961).
  • ^7 BGN/PCGN allows use of underdots instead of cedilla.
  • ^8 F?' and q?f are traditionally written in Northwestern Africa as ? and , respectively, while the latter's dot is only added initially or medially.
  • ^9 In Egypt, Sudan, and sometimes in other regions, the standard form for final-y?' is only ? (without dots) in handwriting and print, for both final /-i:/ and final /-a:/. ? for the latter pronunciation, is called  ? alif layyinah ['?ælef læj'jenæ], 'flexible alif'.
  • ^10 The sun and moon letters and hamzat wa?l pronunciation rules apply, although it is acceptable to ignore them. The UN system and ALA-LC prefer lowercase a and hyphens: al-Ba?rah, ar-Riy; BGN/PCGN prefers uppercase A and no hyphens: Al Ba?rah, Ar Riy.[2]
  • ^11 The EALL suggests ? "in proper names" (volume 4, page 517).

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 as q?r, is meaningless to an untrained reader. For this reason, transcriptions are generally used that add vowels, e.g. qa?ar. 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.[18]

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: Qa?ar. This applies equally to scientific and popular applications. A pure transliteration would need to omit vowels (e.g. q?r), 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 ? vs. alif maqrah ? for the sound /a:/ ?, and the six different ways (? ? ? ? ? ?) of writing the glottal stop (hamza, usually transcribed ). This sort of detail is 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" an-n?r would be more literally transliterated along the lines of aln?r. In the transcription an-n?r, a hyphen is added and the unpronounced removed for the convenience of the uninformed non-Arabic speaker, who would otherwise pronounce an /l/, perhaps not understanding that /n/ in n?r is geminated. Alternatively, if the shaddah is not transliterated (since it is strictly not a letter), a strictly literal transliteration would be aln?r, which presents similar problems for the uninformed non-Arabic speaker.
  • A transliteration should render the "closed t?'" (t?' marbah, ?) faithfully. Many transcriptions render the sound /a/ as a or ah and t when it denotes /at/.
  • "Restricted alif" (alif maqrah, ?) should be transliterated with an acute accent, á, differentiating it from regular alif ?, but it is transcribed in many schemes like alif, ?, because it stands for /a:/.
  • 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  ? /?umar xajja:m/, ['?om?r xæj'jæ:m] (unvocalized ?mr ?y?m, vocalized ?Umar Khayy?m).

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 ? ? ? ? ?) may be confused with two adjacent consonants--but this problem is resolved in the ALA-LC romanization system, where the prime symbol ? is used to separate two consonants when they do not form a digraph;[19] for example: akramat?h? ('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 ? and ? for ? ?ayn 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 ? ?
Arabic with diacritics
(normally omitted)
? ?
IPA /?amd?adu ka:na lahu qas?r/ /?ila?l.mamlakati?
ALA-LC Amjad k?na lahu qa?r Ilá al-mamlakah al-Maghrib?yah
Hans Wehr amjad k?na lah? qa?r il? l-mamlaka al-ma?rib?ya
DIN 31635 ?Am?ad k?na lahu qa?r ?Il? l-mamlakah al-Ma?ribiyyah
UNGEGN Amjad k?na lahu qa?r Ilá al-mamlakah al-maghribiyyah
ISO 233 ?'am?ad k?na lahu qa?r ?'ila? ?'almamlaka? ?'alma?ribi?a?
ArabTeX am^gad kAna lahu il_A almamlakaT alma.gribiyyaT
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.


LEBNAAN in proposed Said Akl alphabet (issue #686)

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 the 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.[20][21]


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.[20][21] There was also the idea of finding a way to use hieroglyphics instead of the Latin alphabet.[20][21] A scholar, Salama Musa, agreed with the idea of applying a Latin alphabet to Egyptian 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.[20][21][22] Ahmad Lutfi As Sayid and Muhammad Azmi, two Egyptian intellectuals, agreed with Musa and supported the push for romanization.[20][21] 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.[20][21] 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.[20][21]

See also


  1. ^ "Romanization system for Arabic. BGN/PCGN 1956 System" (PDF).
  2. ^ a b c d "Arabic" (PDF). UNGEGN.
  3. ^ Technical reference manual for the standardization of geographical names (PDF). UNGEGN. 2007. p. 12 [22].
  4. ^ "Systèmes français de romanisation" (PDF). UNGEGN. 2009.
  5. ^ "Arabic romanization table" (PDF). The Library of Congress.
  6. ^ "IJMES Translation & Transliteration Guide". International Journal of Middle East Studies.
  7. ^ "Encyclopaedia of Islam Romanization vs ALA Romanization for Arabic". University of Washington Libraries.
  8. ^ Brockelmann, Carl; Ronkel, Philippus Samuel van (1935). Die Transliteration der arabischen Schrift... (PDF). Leipzig.
  9. ^ a b Reichmuth, Philipp (2009). "Transcription". In Versteegh, Kees (ed.). Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. 4. Brill. pp. 515-20.
  10. ^ Millar, M. Angélica; Salgado, Rosa; Zedán, Marcela (2005). Gramatica de la lengua arabe para hispanohablantes. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria. pp. 53-54. ISBN 978-956-11-1799-0.
  11. ^ "Standards, Training, Testing, Assessment and Certification". BSI Group. Archived from the original on October 7, 2008. Retrieved .
  12. ^ ArabTex User Manual Section 4.1 : ASCII Transliteration Encoding.
  13. ^ "Buckwalter Arabic Transliteration". QAMUS LLC.
  14. ^ "Arabic Morphological Analyzer/The Buckwalter Transliteration". Xerox. Retrieved .
  15. ^ Writing Arabizi: Orthographic Variation in Romanized Lebanese Arabic on Twitter, Sullivan, Natalie, 2017, The University of Texas at Austin,
  16. ^ Bjørnsson, Jan Arild (November 2010). "Egyptian Romanized Arabic: A Study of Selected Features from Communication Among Egyptian Youth on Facebook" (PDF). University of Oslo. Retrieved 2019.
  17. ^ Dua'a Abu Elhija (2014) A new writing system? Developing orthographies for writing Arabic dialects in electronic media, Writing Systems Research, 6:2, 190-214, DOI: 10.1080/17586801.2013.868334
  18. ^ "Arabizi sparks concern among educators". 2013-05-09. Retrieved .
  19. ^ "Arabic" (PDF). ALA-LC Romanization Tables. Library of Congress. p. 9. Retrieved . 21. The prime (?) is used: (a) To separate two letters representing two distinct consonantal sounds, when the combination might otherwise be read as a digraph.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g History of Arabic Writing
  22. ^ Shrivtiel, p. 188

External links

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