Word of the day – transliteration

Transliteration, from the Latin trans, across, and littera, letter, is the practice of transferring a text from one writing system to another. Transliteration can be used to give people who can’t read other alphabets an idea how to pronounce words and names, though without some knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of pronunciation of the original languages, their pronunciation will probably sound only vaguely like the original.

In phrase books you often find transliterations designed to show how to pronounce things based on the mother tongues of the readers. Such guides tend to be confusing as the ‘phonetics’ might not make much sense to you. A few phrase books and language course provide IPA pronunciation guides, which are great, if you’re familiar with the IPA.

In the phrases section on Omniglot, I try to provide transliterations for all languages written with non-Latin writing systems. Many languages have several different transliteration systems and I usually choose the most widely-used. The transliterations may not make sense to everyone, but there are recordings of quite a few of the phrases, so you can at least hear how to pronounce them. Ideally there would be sound files for all the phrases, plus maybe IPA transcriptions, and with your help, maybe that will be the case one day.

I chose this word today because someone suggested that some of the transliterations on my phrases pages are confusing, especially to Americans. The trouble is, if I made the transliterations American-friendly, people from other countries might not find them useful.

This entry was posted in Language, Words and phrases, Writing.

6 Responses to Word of the day – transliteration

  1. Max says:

    Fun tidbit as well:
    The word Romans used for “to translate” was actually the verb “vertere” meaning “to turn.” I thought this lovely when I learned it, because any translation changes the meaning of what was translated ever so slightly.

    Seemed cogent, given the amount of transliterating into Latin from Greek the Romans did. =)

  2. Daniel says:

    This word of the day is pretty interesting, but you should check out the word of the day from my blog!

  3. TJ says:

    As far as I know, the international and American IPA do not differ much but maybe the american one uses more like “existing-already” latin alphabet to represent for the sounds, like using C+circumflex (as in Czech) to present the sound of “CH” as in Church, instead of using the usual “t+SH-symbol”

    However, it might be useful to represent the transliteration with the usual latin alphabet, neglecting the IPA a bit. Plus, some useful latin letters from some european languages can be useful like Z+circumflex, and after all, maybe there must be a legend on how to pronounce these sounds with a direct example from English (general English).
    There might be a sensitive case for example concerning the letter “R” between the British and the American English but anyway that can be stated in the legend as well (and some languages might use both types of Rs and add the spanish R, and the french R as well!) … all of that can be sorted out into different latin letters (with the help of Unicode and Charmap), and putting a legend to explain. I hope anyway that there won’t be any need to use symbols for sounds out of the context of the european and the american languages but anyway the reader must at least be a bit familiar with different languages sounds at least since he is reading the phrases pages already!!

  4. BG says:

    TJ: Sorry to nitpick, but [č], the symbol used for [tʃ] in the American (I)PA is a C+caron or háček, not circumflex which would be “ĉ” as in Esperanto (which also represents [tʃ]).

    It does get annoying when phrase books, language courses, etc. use English approximations instead of IPA which I find much easier (and learned because of Omniglot!)
    Example (for German):
    yes – no – maybe
    ja – nein – vielleicht
    yah – nine – fee-lycht

    Hello! – Goodbye!
    Guten Tag! – Auf Wiedersehen!
    GOO-ten tak – owf-VEEder-zane

  5. davedave says:

    transliteration also has another meaning. in the field of sign language-to-spoken language interpreting, the term ‘transliteration’ refers to going from one form of a language into another form of the same language; whereas ‘interpretation’ is from one language into a different language.

    for example, some transliterators work between english and manually coded system that represent english (SEE, L.O.V.E., etc.)

    just thought i’d throw that out there.


  6. emanuelleer says:

    I feel like a fog, but such is life. I’ve basically been doing nothing worth mentioning. My life’s been unremarkable today, but so it goes. Not much on my mind to speak of. Not that it matters.I looked at the world.

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