Unless you are a complete idiot, you should know that the Arabic language is written in a very different alphabet than our beloved English. In fact, it is written in a different kind of alphabet, a consonantal alphabet. Of course, it is always helpful to be able to transliterate this alphabet into one our American and European eyes can more easily comprehend. I have found that the best system for transcribing Arabic into Latin letters is the system used by 'Al-kitaab,' a major series of books for teaching Arabic to English speakers. It differs in a few ways from the ALC standard, but i like these differences because they are less ambiguous and easier to type. Here it is, with the letter, the name, the IPA value and the transliteration:

The Consonants

  • ا... 'alif... /?/... ' *
  • ب... baa'... /b/... b
  • ت... taa'... /t/... t
  • ث... thaa'... /θ/... th
  • ج... jiim... /dž/... j **
  • ح... Haa'... /ɦ/... H ***/*****
  • خ... khaa'... /χ/... kh
  • ****
  • د... daal... /d/... d
  • ذ... dhaal... /ð/... dh **
  • ر... raa'... /r/... r
  • ز... zaay... /z/... z
  • س... siin... /s/... s
  • ش ... shiin... /š/ ... sh
  • ص... Saad... /sʕ/... S *****
  • ض... Daad... /dʕ/... D *****
  • ط ... Taa'... /tʕ/... T *****
  • ظ ... DHaa'... /ðʕ/... DH *****
  • ع... cayn... /ʕ/... c , c ***
  • غ... ghayn... /ʁ/... gh , G ****
  • ف... faa'... /f/... f
  • ق... qaaf... /q/... q *****
  • ك... kaaf... /k/... k
  • ل... laam... /l/... l
  • م... miim... /m/... m
  • ن ... nuun... /n/... n
  • ه... haa' ... /h/... h
  • و... waaw... /w/... w
  • ي... yaay... /j/(/y/)... y

* 'alif as a consonant is always a seat for hamza (ء), the glottal stop. hamza can also occur on waaw or yaay, but should always be transcribed ', as if it were on alif. The reasons it occurs in these places, or even by itself have more to do with orthography than the sound itself, which is always a glottal stop, unless it is elided, in which case it is omitted.

** The letters jiim, dhaa', and DHaa' can be giim, zaa', and Zaa' (/g/, /z/, /zʕ/) in some dialects, most notably Egyptian.

*** Alright, this concerns pharyngeals. These sounds are hard to hear if you're not a native speaker. Haa' is a very sharp 'h' sound, like if you tried to say an 'h' loudly. cayn has no equivalent whatsoever in English or almost any other language. The sound is the voiced version of Haa'. You'd really need to hear a native speaker though. Anyway, back to the subject at hand. ALC transcribes this as `, " or a backwards apostrophe. I don't like this becuase it can be confused with the glottal stop or with punctuation marks (Arabic uses basically the same punctuation as English). Instead, I prefer to use the superscript 'c,' especially since to an English speaker, it looks forein, as it is very much so, and because it implies a sort of glide, which is what an English speaker would perceive it as. Somali uses 'x' and 'c' for these sounds, but that can easily confuse an English eyes for obvious reasons. The superscript is a bit more difficult to make, but overall I think it's a better symbol. Of course, the ALC symbol may be better for things where type is very limited, like map-making, newspaper, etc. I'll talk more about this aspect later.

**** I need to explain khaa' and ghayn a bit. These sounds are uvular and not velar. They are like the French 'r' in Paris (ghayn) and the Low Dutch acht (khaa'), and not the Spanish lago or the German machen. The difference is slight, but it's a difference that is good to know and often overlooked. ***** The pharyngealized consonants and Haa' are usually transcribed according to the ALC by placing a dot underneath the unpharyngealized counterpart. I do not like this way simply becuase it's harder to do than my way, and because I feel that my way, which is to capitalize them, is a better visual cue to what is actually happening. Of course, this means that proper names and sentence-initial words cannot be capitalized, but it doesn't matter because in Arabic there is no such distinction. If you are uncomfortable with this or it would be innapropriate in context (as with the superscript in cayn), then by all means use the ALC way. In case you're wondering how these consonants differ from daal, siin, dhaal, and taa', they are pronounced "deeper," that is, the tongue is lower in the mouth. These sounds, along with Haa', cayn, and qaaf cause surrounding vowels to be dropped a peg or two, so that a 'cat' sound will become a 'cot' sound. This is anothe rone of those things you'd have to hear.

The Vowels:

Short Vowels

  • َ...fatHa.../a/,/æ/,/ε/,/ə/, etc....a *
  • ِ...kasra.../I/,/ε/...i *
  • ُ...Damma.../υ/,/u/,/ə/,/o/, etc....u *

Long Vowels

  • ا...'alif.../a:/,/æ:/,etc....aa **
  • و...waaw.../u:/...uu **
  • ي...yaay.../i:/...ii **

Diphthongs

* The short vowels are a result of how Arabic and other consonantal alphabets deal with vowels: they're not as important as they are in other languages, and vary wildly, often depending on surrounding consonants. For this reason, they should always be transcribed as 'a', 'i', 'u' so that they remain true to the original Arabic spelling. The short vowel is the one marked above the preceding consonant. So, 'قَمَرْ' would be 'qamar.' Also, here I should mention sukuun(ْ), which is nothing more than the absence of a vowel. These short vowels and sukuun really only appear in fully vocalized texts, such as religious passages and school books, but not in newspapers, magazines, etc.

** Arabic has contrastive length in their vowels. ALC uses the flat line diacritic over 'a' 'i' or 'u' to represent length. But as with the emphatic consonants, it is easier to not have to worry about pain-in-the-ass diacritics. Again, if there's a constraint on your ability to use this part of the transliteration system, feel free to use ALC, but I don't see how this can be a problem. It should also be noted that I use 'ii' for the vowel yaay instead of 'ee,' which is commonly used. I do this because its closer to the actual IPA and because it identifies it as a long version of kasra.

*** The the diphthongs are pretty straightforward. A note is just to always use 'ay' and never 'ey' or 'ai.' This avoids confusion.

Other Stuff

  • ة'taa' marbuuTa' I transcribe this as 'a,' becuase this is how it's usually pronounced, because it has an inherent fatHa preceding it. Some people transcribe it as 'ah,' but I do not like this idea, since 'h' is phonemic at the end of some Arabic words. taa' marbuuTa is actually a 't,' but the /t/ sound exists in only certain situations, such as place names of the format 'X of Y'. An example is جامعة الاهرة , the University of Cairo, which is transcribed as 'jaamicat al-qaahira.'
  • ال 'alif-laam, the definite article. This is transcribed two ways: If the beginning letter is a moonletter, then the alif-laam is transcribed 'al-'. If it is a sun letter, then it is transcribed as 'a_-' where the space is filled by the same consonant that begins the word. So, 'the book' is 'al-kitaab', but 'the doctor' is 'ad-duktuur.' In the event that the 'alif is elided, do not transcribe the 'alif, just the laam. 'bilcarabiyya' is 'in Arabic, not 'bi'alcarabiyya.' Elision is often noted in fully vocalized texts as 'alif tawaSl( ٱ). Elision occurs frequently in Arabic, and this is one of the reasons why you should know some Arabic before trying to transcribe everything.
  • ّ shadda This symbol just means that you double the consonant it sits on top of. مِصرِيّ 'Egyptian' is 'miSriyy.'
  • There are also double versions of fatHa, Damma, and kasra. These are called tanwiin, and stand for the indefinite article in various cases. They are usually seated on 'alif at the end of words and transcribed 'an' 'un' and 'in,' respectively.
  • Finally, there are a few more ways to spell 'alif to be aware of:
    • ى'alif maqSuura This occurs only at the end of words and is often the final letter in many proper names.
    • آ 'alif madda This occurs when there are two 'alifs in a row, with or without a hamza. Basically, it means that 'alif is preceded by a glottal stop, as in the word القُرآن, 'al-qur'aan' which shouldn't need a translation. Finally, there is the dagger 'alif,', which is pronounced just like regular 'alif, but occurs in some rare but important places, such as اللٰه, 'al-laah,' 'Allah,' unquestionably the most important word of all in Arabic.

It is important that you know at least a little Arabic before trying to transcribe things. There are many little spelling rules which will help you in transcription.

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