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Arabic words and the Roman alphabet

Introduction

THE WRITING of Arabic words in English texts presents a number of difficulties, even for those who are familiar with both languages. 

In 1926, when T E Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") sent his 130,000-word manuscript of Revolt in the Desert to be typeset, a sharp-eyed proof-reader spotted that it was "full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names".

Among other things, the proof-reader noted that "Jeddah" alternated with "Jidda" throughout the book, while a man whose name began as Sherif Abd el Mayin later became el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.

Lawrence refused to change the spellings. 

"Arabic names," he replied, "won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district."

Such inconsistencies may not matter much in a literary work but in many other situations they do matter. For instance, if you wanted to look up an Arab called "Hassan al-Ghobashy" in the telephone directory, he might be listed under A, E or G:

AL-GHOBASHY Hassan
EL-GHOBASHY Hassan
GHOBASHY Hassan al-

Difficulties arise whenever Arabic names are listed alphabetically using the Roman alphabet, and when they are used in databases or search engines. Efforts by the FBI to track down Usama bin Laden's supporters, for instance, were severely hampered by this problem.

Newspapers spell the Libyan leader's name in a variety of ways, with the result that a researcher trying to find articles about him would be likely to miss a significant number of them. According to one website, there are 32 possible ways to spell his name.

There is no ideal, all-purpose solution. There are, however, several different approaches to a solution and the best choice depends largely on the writer's purpose and intended audience. 

The following notes are an attempt to explain the issues involved. They should be considered as "work in progress" and readers are encouraged to send comments, questions or corrections by email.

To view the Arabic alphabet click here

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