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Arabic words and the Roman alphabet-3-

  1. Phonetic spelling

ONE APPROACH is to take Arabic words as they are pronounced and write down approximately similar sounds in the Roman alphabet. This is what early European travellers to the Middle East usually did, and the results were often bizarre or, in some cases, almost unrecognisable. 

Inexact spellings such as "Mecca" and "Koran" entered the English language a long time ago and have become so entrenched that they are now difficult to eradicate. In old books the Prophet's name is frequently spelled as "Mahomet" and this is still used to some extent today. There is no logical reason for it because Muhammad is one Arabic name that can easily be rendered in a way that is both phonetically accurate and faithful to its written form.

The Roman alphabet, of course, is used by a number of European languages, so phonetic representations of Arabic words vary according to the mother tongue of the writer. Romanised spellings adopted by Arabs themselves often reflect previous colonial influences: an Arab in a country with strong English influence might spell his surname as "Shaheen", while a cousin in a French-influenced country would spell it as "Chahine". In both cases, the original Arabic name is the same.

A further consideration is that there are also significant regional variations in pronunciation by Arabs. So a single Arabic word, spoken by a Moroccan, and Egyptian and a Saudi could easily appear as three different words if written phonetically in the Roman alphabet.

The spellings of Arabic words found in the western mass media are often at least partly phonetic but rarely do justice to the original.

In some circumstances, more precise phonetic spelling is needed - in phrase books for tourists, for instance, or in pronunciation guides for broadcasters. The following examples come from a guide issued by Associated Press to help American radio stations with their pronunciation:

mah-MOOD' ah-BAHS' (Mahmoud Abbas) 

mah-MOOD' ab-DEHL'-BA'-set (Mahmoud Abdel-Baset)

shayk OH'-mahr AHB'-dehl RAHK'-mahn (Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman)

This is not only thoroughly unscientific but highly inaccurate. The guide happily inserts various sounds that don't exist in the original Arabic (a K in "Rahman", for example) and ignores several others that do exist. It also offers two different pronunciations of "Abdel-", for no logical reason.

Truly phonetic spelling follows the International Phonetic Alphabet which is used academically by linguists. Its disadvantage in general use is that it requires characters outside the normal alphabet and is therefore more or less incomprehensible to non-specialists.

Transcription (Romanisation)

A DIFFERENT approach is to start with Arabic words in their written form and transcribe (or "Romanise") them by replacing individual Arabic letters with corresponding letters from the Roman alphabet. This sounds simple but is actually very difficult. For example:

  • Only eight Arabic letters have a clear equivalent in the Roman alphabet: B, F, K, L, M, N, R, and Z. 

  • Arabic has two distinct consonants that approximate to the sound of S. The same applies to D, H and T.

  • There are two glottal sounds that do not obviously correspond to any Roman letter.

The ideal solution would be to have a standard, internationally agreed, system. Several have been proposed but unfortunately none has been universally accepted. A selection of these can be viewed in PDF format at

Probably the earliest attempt at standardisation was Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft proposal, adopted by the International Convention of Orientalist Scholars in 1936. It is the system used in the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary. Another standard was agreed in 1971 at a conference of Arab experts in Beirut and - theoretically, at least, accepted by the countries of the Arab League. It has met some resistance, particularly in those Arab countries where French predominates over English. Other transcription/Romanisation systems include:

ALA-LC Romanization Tables 

Adopted by the US Library of Congress and the American Library Association for cataloguing books, the system has found its way into wider academic use. It covers a multitude of languages: there are 54 Romanisation tables for more than 150 languages and dialects written in non-Roman scripts. The table relating to Arabic may be viewed in PDF format at the following sites:   

Alternatively, a complete set of the tables may be purchased from 

ISO 233 

Published by the International Standards Organisation. Copies may be purchased here.

British Standard BS 4280: 1968 

Not widely used - which is hardly surprising since the British Standards Institute holds the copyright (it cannot be reproduced here) and copies are expensive to buy (about $39 for an eight-page document).

United Nations Romanization System for Geographical Names

Overseen by the Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), this aims to promote "consistent use of accurate place names" on maps and similar products. Work on the project has been continuing since 1972. A progress report on Arabic romanization, dated March 2000



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