Romanization of Arabic

Application of the Latin script to write the Arabic language in one of various systematic ways

The romanization of Arabic writes 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 in lieu 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.[citation needed] 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 munāẓaratu l-ḥurūfi l-ʻarabiyyah of the Arabic: مناظرة الحروف العربية‎ is a transcription, indicating the pronunciation; an example transliteration would be mnaẓrḧ alḥrwf alʻrbyḧ.

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 قطر as qṭr, is meaningless to an untrained reader. For this reason, transcriptions are generally used that add vowels, e.g. qaṭar. 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.[14]

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: Qaṭar. This applies equally to scientific and popular applications. A pure transliteration would need to omit vowels (e.g. qṭr ), 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  ا vs. alif maqṣūrah ى for the sound /aː/ ā, and the six different ways (ء إ أ آ ؤ ئ) of writing the glottal stop (hamza, usually transcribed ʼ ). 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:

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 عمر خيام /ʕumar xajjaːm/, [ˈʕomɑr xæjˈjæːm] (unvocalized ʿmr ḫyām, vocalized ʻUmar Khayyām).

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 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.

There have been many instances of national movements to convert Arabic script into Latin script or to romanize the language.

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 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.[16][17]

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.[16][17] There was also the idea of finding a way to use hieroglyphics instead of the Latin alphabet.[16][17] 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.[16][17][18] Ahmad Lutfi As Sayid and Muhammad Azmi, two Egyptian intellectuals, agreed with Musa and supported the push for romanization.[16][17] 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.[16][17] 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.[16][17]