An American Editor

November 20, 2017

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 1: Sources of Variations

by Ælfwine Mischler

As a native English speaker and editor in Cairo, I am often asked how to spell a name or Arabic word “in English,” meaning with the Latin alphabet and for an English-speaking audience. A child’s name on a birth certificate, a name and address on a visa application, Islamic terms in a web article or book. English-speaking copyeditors frequently joke or complain about the multiple spellings of Arabic names (“twelve ways to spell Muhammad”), and other difficulties might appear in a manuscript.

In this and subsequent essays, I explain why these differences occur, what you as an author or editor need to know, and how to use special characters if you (or your publisher) choose to include them.

Romanize, Spell, Transcribe, and Transliterate

Transcribe and transliterate are often used interchangeably, but if Wikipedia rather than Merriam-Webster is to be believed, transliterate is to represent a word letter by letter from one alphabet to another, whereas transcribe is to represent the sounds of a language. Arabic does not write short vowels, so (according to Wikipedia) the Arabic كتب (“to write”) should be transliterated as ktb, which does not give enough information to pronounce it. A transcription would show the vowels: kataba. Some transcriptions, especially for linguistic studies, use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show the precise pronunciation. I do not have expertise in such transcriptions and do not discuss them.

For these essays I avoid using transliterate. I usually use transcribe for romanizing Arabic in more-precise ways using diacritics, such as in an academic text, and spell for romanizing without diacritics, such as in documents, newspapers, and trade books.

My focus is on Arabic represented by Latin letters in an English text, as that is my area of expertise. Speakers of other languages that use the Latin alphabet, such as German and French, will have their own ways of romanizing Arabic.

Why So Many Spellings?

As noted earlier, there are often multiple Latinized spellings of the same Arabic word. The four primary reasons for this are as follows:

  1. Several Arabic phonemes don’t exist in English. Among these are pairs that when spoken sound very similar to non-Arabic speakers. In less-precise English spelling, these pairs are usually represented by the same letter, but in more-precise transcription the emphatic consonant is shown with a dot or other diacritic underneath (e.g., ḥ or ḩ versus h). Some other phonemes may be romanized with a digraph or diacritics (e.g. kh or ḫ).
  2. The short vowels are not written in Arabic. Their pronunciation and romanization can vary across dialects.
  3. Arabic names and terms are used by Muslims in many countries, and the spelling of phonemes varies across languages. For example, the Arabic letter shīn (ش) is written by English speakers as sh. French speakers render the same letter as ch, and Malaysians as sy. The letter jīm (ج) is written as j in English if it is pronounced as “soft g” (see below), but it will be spelled as dj where French influences the spelling. The Arabic ḍāḍ (ض), an emphatic letter, is often spelled dh by South and Southeast Asians, so they spell the month of fasting as Ramadhan.
    A doubled consonant in Arabic changes the meaning of a word, but sometimes names are romanized with doubled consonants to prevent a mispronunciation in English. The name Yāsir (ياسر) does not have a double consonant in Arabic, but a common spelling in English is Yasser because with a single s the name would likely be pronounced “Yazer.”
  4. Another source of variation is that a few Arabic letters are pronounced differently in different dialects. The letter jīm (ج) is pronounced as English “hard g” in Cairo and northern Egypt. (Gamal Abdul Nasser’s first name begins with jīm.) Meanwhile, the letter qāf (ق) — an emphatic consonant pronounced in classical Arabic something like a k but with the tongue touching the palate farther back than for k — is pronounced as English “hard g” in some dialects. In the more popular academic transcription systems it is written as q, but many people use k in spelling their names (therefore not distinguishing qāf [ق] and kāf [ك]). In Cairo, qāf is usually pronounced as a glottal stop, but in romanized place names it is written as k, leading uninitiated tourists and expats to pronounce the neighborhood Dokki in a way that might confuse taxi drivers. The letter qāf is also one reason the world had such trouble spelling al-Gaddafi (al-Qaddafi, al-Qadhdhafi) (القذافي), the ousted Libyan leader. The Libyan dialect pronounces qāf as “hard g.”

So How Do You Spell…?

When I am asked how to spell an Arabic name or term in English, I usually ask what is being written (e.g., an academic paper, a trade book, a letter, a journal article) and who is the audience. If you’re deciding the spelling of your child’s name or writing something for a general reader, my answer will be different than if you are writing an academic paper.

If you are writing an academic paper, several different systems for romanizing Arabic exist. If you are writing or editing a scholarly text, you will have to follow the publisher’s preferred method. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends ALA-LC Romanization Tables: Transliteration Schemes for Non-Roman Scripts and the IJMES system of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. There are others.

If you are completing a form or writing for a general reader, I usually recommend a simplified spelling without using diacritics. If you are writing Islamic materials for a general audience, you might prefer to use diacritics for Islamic terms. Editors have asked me about spellings when their non-Arabic-speaking authors apparently took materials from various sources that used different systems of romanizing. Whether you choose to use diacritics or not, be consistent in spelling or transcribing terms.

Place names and personal names are more difficult. Names of recent and living people will unlikely be transcribed following an academic system, but there are exceptions. I indexed a book on Arabic literature in which the names of authors who had only published in Arabic were transcribed with diacritics, even if their works were well known in translation. Thus Nobel Prize–winning Naguib Mahfouz was written as Najīb Maḥfūẓ.

If recent and living people have a preferred spelling for their name, use that. If a personal name or place name appears in the news or is otherwise well known, use that spelling. If there is variation between news sources, choose one and stick to it.

In Part 2: Other Challenges for Editors, I discuss some other features of Arabic that may cause problems for editors and writers who are unfamiliar with the language.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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