Can Arabic be romanized? Let’s answer the question starting with the definition of romanization, following the possible difficulties that the romanization of Arabic may entail and ending with some interesting examples to dot the i’s.
What is romanization?
Romanization is the process of converting a non-roman writing system into Latin alphabet. This process includes transcription or transliteration and allows individuals who do not know the writing system of a language to be able to read it phonetically. Some examples of romanized languages are Serbian, Turkish and Punjabi. In sociolinguistics, this phenomenon is referred to as “digraphia“.
Digraphia entertains the use of two writing systems for a language based upon two graphical systems without altering the pronunciation. In Serbia, for instance, the Latin alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet are used interchangeably. In the case of the Turkish language, the Perso-Arabic alphabet was substituted by the Roman alphabet in 1928. The difference between these two cases is that Serbian went through synchronic digraphia, which means that the two writing systems coexist at the present time, while Turkish went through diachronic digraphia, which indicates that the Latin alphabet was adopted to substitute the Perso-Arabic alphabet permanently.
Romanization, as indicated above, can only be achieved if the romanized pronunciation is congruent with the original pronunciation. The difficulty here is that some languages are characterized by phonemes that other languages are not familiar with. In the case of Arabic, and keeping in mind the post question can Arabic be romanized, one basic problem is that it tends to be unvocalized. Having to represent Arabic in Latin alphabet implies th txt mst b wrttn lk ths.
What is the problem then? Can Arabic be romanized?
The problem with this system is that it is very difficult to interpret and may be easily misread by non-native speakers. The absence of vowels does not provide the reader with the information needed to pronounce correctly. There is also some level of controversy regarding the representation of some vowels in the Latin alphabet. For example, there is no reliable method to conclude if the correct spelling for “Muslim” is indeed “Muslim”, “Moslem”, “Muslem” or “Moslim”. Since Arabic is not adequately equipped with vowels, it is almost impossible to transfer its phonemes into the Latin alphabet in a precise manner. Another difficulty is that Arabic is characterized by unconventional units of sound. This makes its romanization highly inconvenient, to say the least.
In the case of [country] names, it seems that there has been a preference for transcription. Strictly speaking, transcription is concerned with representing the phonemes of the language, while transliteration assigns each character to a corresponding one in the target language. If the latter method is used, the resulting word for “Qatar” would be “Qtr”. The reason for this is that the Arabic word for “Qatar” has no vowels. It is therefore more recommendable to use transcription to romanize Arabic in order to provide the reader with sufficient information to pronounce the word correctly.