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Transliteration in a narrow sense is a mapping from one script into another script. It tries to be lossless, i.e., the informed reader should be able to reconstruct the original spelling of unknown transliterated words. To achieve this, it may define complex conventions about how to transliterate letters that have no simple correspondence in the goal script. Romaji, as an example, is a transliterating method.

This is opposed to transcription, which maps the sounds of one language to the script of another language. Still, most transliterations map the letters of the source script to letters pronounced similarly in the goal script, for some specific pair of source and goal language.

One instance of transliteration is the use of an English computer keyboard to type in a language that uses a different alphabet, such as in Russian. While the first usage of the word implies seeking the best way to render foreign words into a particular language, the typing transliteration is a purely pragmatic process of inputting text in a particular language. Transliteration from English letters is particularly important for users who are only familiar with the English keyboard layout, and hence could not type quickly in a different alphabet even if their software would actually support a keyboard layout for another language. Some programs, such as the Russian language word processor Hieroglyph provide typing by transliteration as an important feature. The rest of the article concerns itself with the first meaning of the word, that is rendering foreign words into a different alphabet.

If the relations between letters and sounds are similar in both languages, a transliteration may be (almost) the same as a transcription. In practice, there are also some mixed transliteration/transcription systems, that transliterate a part of the original script and transcribe the rest. Greeklish is an example of such a mixture.

In a broader sense, the word transliteration is used to include both transliteration in the narrow sense and transcription. Anglicizing is a transcription method. Romanization encompasses several transliteration and transcription methods.

1 Uses of transliteration
2 Issues in transliterating particular languages
3 See also
4 Transliteration sites


Example to illustrate the difference between transliteration and transcription

In Modern Greek, the letters <η> <ι> <υ> and the letter combinations <ει> <oι> <υι> are all pronounced (in IPA notation). A transcription consequently renders them all as <i>, but a transliteration still distinguishes them, for example by transliterating to <ē> <i> <y> and <ei> <oi> <yi>. (As the old Greek pronunciation of <η> was [ɛ:], this proposal uses the character appropriate for an Old Greek transliteration or transcription <ē>, an <e> with a macron.) On the other hand, <ευ> is sometimes pronounced [ev] and sometimes [ef], depending on the following sound. A transcription distinguishes them, but this is no requirement for a transliteration.

Greek word Transliteration Transcription
Ελληνική Δημοκρατία Ellēnikē Dēmokratia Elliniki Dimokratia
Ελευθερία eleutheria eleftheria
Ευαγγέλιο Euaggelio Evangelio
των υιών tōn uiōn ton ion

Uses of transliteration

Transliterations in the narrow sense are used in situations where the original script is not available to write down a word in that script, while still high precision is required. For example, traditional or cheap typesetting with a small character set; editions of old texts in scripts not used any more (such as Linear B); some library catalogues (see

For example, the Greek language is written in the 24-letter Greek alphabet, which overlaps with, but differs from, the 26-letter version of the Roman alphabet in which English is written. Etymologies in English dictionaries often identify Greek words as ancestors of words used in English. Consequently, most such dictionaries transliterate the Greek words into Roman letters.

Transliteration in the broader sense is a necessary process when using words or concepts expressed in a language with a script other than one's own.

The idea of transliteration is complicated by the genuine use in multiple languages of different common nouns for the same person, place or thing. Thus, "Muhammad" is in common use now in English and "Mohammed" is less popular, though there are excellent reasons for each transcription (and similarly for "Muslim" and "Moslem"). "Muslim" and "Mohammedan" are not interchangeable, as "Mohammedan" has come to be viewed as a religious slur, and the typical French usage "Musulman" is considered offensively colonialist in English language contexts. However, "Musulmaan" is the way to say "Muslim" in other languages, such as Urdu and Hindi.

Transliteration is also used for simple encryption.

Issues in transliterating particular languages

Some languages and scripts present particular difficulties to transcribers. These are discussed on separate pages.

See also

Transliteration sites

Last updated: 08-25-2005 15:02:01
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