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What is Transliteration?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Transliteration is a process in which words in one alphabet are represented in another alphabet. There are a number of rules which govern transliteration between different alphabets, designed to ensure that it is uniform, allowing readers to clearly understand transliterations. Transliteration is not quite the same thing as transcription, although the two are very similar; in transcription, people represent sounds with letters from another alphabet, while in transliteration, people attempt to map letters over each other, sometimes with accent marks or other clues to suggest particular sounds.

Many cultures around the world use different scripts to represent their languages. By transliterating, people can make their languages more accessible to people who do not understand their scripts. For example, to someone who knows the Roman alphabet, the name محمد is incomprehensible. However, when it is transliterated as Muhammad, readers of the Roman alphabet understand that it means the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

There are a number of reasons to use transliteration, but most of them involve conveying information across cultures. For example, on a menu in a Thai restaurant, ข้าวราดแกง might be written as khao rad gang for English speakers, so that they can read what they are ordering, even if they do not understand it. Transliteration is also used in language education, so that people can understand how words are pronounced without needing to learn the alphabet as well. Academic papers may also use transliteration to discuss words in various languages without forcing their readers to learn an assortment of alphabets. This is especially common with obscure scripts like Linear B, which can be read by only a handful of people.

People try to use standardized trends when they transliterate so that transliterations are uniform, but this does not always happen. Muhammad, for example, is spelled in a variety of ways, including Mohammad and Mahomet. This can be confusing, as changes in transliteration change the way that a word sounds when it is spoken out loud. A good transliteration also employs accent markings to guide people, and it may have unusual combinations of letters in an attempt to convey unique sounds.

Transliteration is not the same thing as translation, a process in which words are made meaningful to speakers of other languages. For example, the popular Arabic food transliterated as khubz arabi is better known as “pita bread” by English speakers. Translation requires a knowledge of languages, which transliteration is more about alphabets.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Feb 21, 2011

I've always been interested in the Chinese language and I finally found the chance to take a Chinese language course since I've started college. Chinese is such a difficult language. There is said to be between 40,000 and 80,000 Chinese characters. It's very much possible for a Chinese to not recognize a word or a character because they are used in so many different ways. This is why I find it really difficult to read and pronounce Chinese words. I'm relying on Chinese transliteration for now. I'm just in my first semester, it looks like I will depend on transliteration for a long while until I get a handle of the language.

By turquoise — On Feb 19, 2011

I didn't know until now that its called transliteration but my mom used to transliterate prayers for me when I was little. We are Muslim but we don't speak Arabic although we still say our prayers in Arabic. When my mom was teaching me prayers for the first time, she would transliterate the prayers into the Roman alphabet so I can read and memorize them. Now I've learned the Arabic alphabet and I can read them directly but I will also use Quran transliteration to teach my kids the basic prayers.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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